Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

A man who spent 15 years delighting local children as Santa Claus for the annual Christmas parades in Sonora and Murphys died Friday at his home after a three-year-long illness.

John Dawson died at his Murphys home from liver failure, with his wife of 52 years and sometimes "Mrs. Claus," Eileen Dawson, by his side.

The couple played the North Pole duo through 2009 in Sonora and 2010 in Murphys, before John retired due to his failing health. With a long white beard and jovial demeanor, he'd been "a natural Santa," Eileen said, and first donned the red suit for Cupertino Moose Lodge and Stanford University functions before moving to the Mother Lode.

His Murphys neighbor had been the town's parade Santa and when he was ready to hang up his fluff ball-tipped hat, he recognized his ready replacement, Eileen said.

"He offered John his (false) beard but, of course, he said he didn't need that," she recalled.

Eileen said she had to don a wig to become Mrs. Claus but her husband needed no such adornments.

"He loved children and he communicated well with them," she said. "He had a great sense of humor and he always kept people laughing."

"He was generous with his help and generous with his humor, which we thoroughly enjoyed," recalled friend Jan Olson, who owned Black Sheep Winery when Dawson first moved to town. "Mention any subject and he had a funny story to tell about it and probably a wise crack to go along with it."

Born in Liverpool, England, Dawson was a retired salesman and builder.

He loved classic vehicles and founded Havnoux Vineyards in Murphys. He served as president of an Alfa Romeo association and helped found the Dodge Brothers Society to celebrate the company's trucks. More often than not, he cruised around in a shiny red Alfa Romeo or a green 1941 Dodge cabover.

"A lot of children feel that he's the real Santa and that (Santa) drives a red sports car," Eileen said.

She said local teens who grew up knowing Dawson as Santa Claus have helped the couple in recent years by providing firewood to heat their home.

Dawson is survived by his wife, Eileen; sister Rena Schuetz, of Oregon; daughter-in-law Dana Dawson, of Hollister; and two grandsons. He was preceded in death by his son, John Brian Dawson, in May 2012.

Donations in Dawson's memory can be made to Eileen Dawson c/o Sensible Accounting Service, 150 Big Trees Road, Suite F, Murphys, CA 95247, to assist with funeral and medical costs; Hospice of the Sierra, 20100 Cedar Road North, Sonora, CA 95370, or another favorite charity.