Tossing Trash Onto The Naughty List
An irresistible do-gooder, with a very familiar look, combs the sands on Isle of Palms in search of a cleaner coast. Meet “Beach Santa.” By Susan Hill Smith Photos by Steve Rosamilia
He scans the sand with twinkling blue eyes as his snow-white hair and beard ow with the wind. He is supposedly on vacation, but his volunteer pursuit of picking up trash along Isle of Palms beach can keep him busy for hours.
Of course, he spends some of that time talking with fans. They don’t buy his cover story — that his name is Howard Hogue, a 66-year-old, retired shop teacher and hardware store manager from up North who relocated to the Lowcountry. They can see the resemblance for themselves — and they want hugs and selfies.
C’mon, who wouldn’t recognize Santa, and especially in that cherry-red tank top and bathing suit? Truth told, Santa — or Howard if you want to humor him — enjoys the attention and can’t resist using his celebrity to bring attention to the problem of coastal pollution.
“There’s a lot of people who walk the beach for trash, other than myself, but I think I stand out here,” he says with a wry grin as he chats near the Isle of Palms pier at sunrise.
Not surprisingly, Santa likes to keep things light, and that plays well with tourists and locals alike. Isle of Palms resident and regular beach walker Sarah Parker Daniel stops to say hi and admits she can’t remember the first time she saw him. “You became a fixture really fast,” she tells him. “I just thought, ‘What a great citizen. It’s somebody else who loves the beach like I do,’ and we appreciate it.”
Santa took up residence in Moncks Corner at the end of December 2015, and after a year of getting settled in his new place, he started visiting Lowcountry beaches regularly in the spring of 2017. At first, he tried Folly Beach, then he realized that Isle of Palms was a more family friendly scene.
He walks to keep t, as suggested by his doctor, and he finds it easier to keep moving with the distraction of trash collection. His weight struggles are real, so it’s mostly salads and low-fat yogurt. A year ago, he lost more than 40 pounds, he says. “Some of the pounds found me back.”
Instead of a pack, he carries a large white bucket and an extension tool that allows him to grab trash without bending down — especially helpful given his past knee replacements. On busy days, he will walk through crowds to attract interest. “What I do makes a small difference, and you know if everybody did something, it would help out. You get more done by teamwork.”
He’s Santa, not a scientist, but he welcomes the teaching moments that come when he talks with beachgoers about the dangers trash poses to ecosystems, for example, when a sea turtle consumes a plastic bag thinking it’s a jelly sh. He’s also quick to point out safety issues for people like broken glass and rusty bottle caps. While he shares his message with all ages, he notes that the children really seem to get it. “Young kids have open minds. They learn so fast.”
During the low season, he visits about once a week. But during the hot months of summer you might see him daily, zig-zagging back and forth on a popular stretch of beach from the Windjammer to two blocks past the pier and Isle of Palms County Park.
Despite the e orts by the city and county to keep things clean, he can always uncover trash here, and he has a real eye for it now. “I know certain shapes shouldn’t exist on the beach,” says Santa, who also likes to do puzzles. ‑ e morning sun helps illuminate items, he explains as he points to sparkles of “sippy straw wrappers galore.” ‑ e light is different once he switches direction, so it helps to go both ways.
As he wraps up, he throws away many pieces of trash in the covered receptacles provided by the county park, but he also takes home some items to re-use in his workshop. He plans to craft a sea turtle sculpture as a gift to the Isle of Palms County Park, where he has gotten to know many of the lifeguards and other employees.
One time, when a hard summer rain exposed extra items, he made a list of all he brought back home — such a predictably meticulous Santa thing to do. “I sorted it and counted it, and I took a sheet and documented everything I picked up that day.” He pulls out a phone to show a photo of the haul and proclaims, “the proof is in the pudding.” About half of the 455 pieces he kept were plastic drinking bottle caps. He also brought back 20 rusty beer caps, a bunch of hair ties, toys and a variety of other items.
He has found money, jewelry, two drivers’ licenses, a cell phone and shoes, plus metal tent stakes, cigarette butts and more water balloon remnants than he would care to count. He recognizes it’s impossible to get it all, and while he doesn’t let that get him down, he has visions of a cleaner future. “It would be nice to come down here and not find anything after a day at the beach.”