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Christmas Is Incidental to Spirit of Gifts

Times Staff Writer

Dr. Herman Epstein, leaning on his cane, watched as his son, Norman, handed out dozens of brand-new watches, toys and teddy bears to delighted children Monday at County-USC Medical Center.

While his 43rd annual Christmas party for more than 500 of the smallest patients at the hospital was in full swing, the 82-year-old orthopedic surgeon was content to “stay on the sidelines,” he said, “feeling happy.”

Back when he was a resident at County Hospital, the medical center’s forerunner, Epstein recalled, “I found a lot of these children don’t have a thing. This hospital treats the poorest and most disadvantaged.”

So he started the annual gift-giving, raising the $10,000 to $12,000 it now takes annually-- “because I won’t give anything second-hand"--and making up the difference himself when friends, former patients and manufacturers do not give enough.

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Not for Christmas

“We don’t believe in Christmas, but we do it anyway,” said Epstein, a tall man with a soft voice and kind eyes. “It doesn’t make any difference.”

Epstein walked up behind Norman, who was dressed in one of his father’s old Santa Claus suits. Norman Epstein, 51, vice president and general manager of KZLA/KLAC radio, gave Aaron Palmer, 4, some miniature trucks, a baseball cap and a rubber toy he invented, called a Bomp.

The child, hospitalized for a wrist infection, had been at the hospital nearly a month and doctors were not sure if he would be released before the holidays.

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He stared, wide-eyed and speechless, when Santa Claus asked him what he wanted for Christmas. Then he solemnly held up the toys he had just been given.

“When I was a child, I went with him and saw him change into Santa Claus,” Norman Epstein said of his father, “and I thought, ‘I’m the luckiest child in the world. My father is Santa Claus.’ ”

Then, he added jokingly, “I found out I was Jewish. This must be the only Jewish Santa Claus family.”

In recent years, Herman Epstein said, he has had difficulty finding funds.

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“The trouble is they get old and they retire,” he said of longtime donors who no longer participate.

Retirement is not a word that seems to be part of the doctor’s vocabulary. He did give up his private practice about 12 years ago. But he still teaches at County-USC twice a week, and then he works three days a week at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sepulveda.

And his Santa Claus role isn’t just confined to December. Once a week, Epstein and his wife, Beatrice, bring 150 lunches to children being treated at the medical center’s outpatient clinic. He organizes fishing trips for hundreds of disadvantaged children in the summer. And he also works to find television sets for AIDS patients in the hospital.

“They just lie there in their rooms,” Epstein said. “I can’t get them the expensive ones. I get the black and whites, but they’re still good televisions.”

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For him, giving “is a year-round thing,” he said. “It’s nothing. It’s like any ordinary day.”


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