IOWA DERECHO 2020

Local Santa, Mrs. Claus find hope in year of fighting cancer, COVID and a derecho that destroyed their reindeer farm

Jodi Philipp points to some of the damage to 2 Jo's Farm and Western Town from the Aug. 10 derecho on Dec. 31, including
Jodi Philipp points to some of the damage to 2 Jo’s Farm and Western Town from the Aug. 10 derecho on Dec. 31, including most of the farm buildings and the Philipp home in Van Horne. (Liz Martin photos/The Gazette)
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Jodi and John Philipp were driving home from a cancer treatment session in Iowa City to their home in Van Horne when the derecho hit.

It took them hours to make it to their house on Highway 30 in Benton County on that August afternoon, stopping and starting as semis blew over in front of them. The wind and rain raged as they made their way around debris. Their adult son and daughter were at the farm house at the time, and their son was talking to them on the phone as the ceiling was ripping above him, so they knew things would be bad. But it was still a shock to see. They almost drove past their farm because the landmark buildings were gone.

“We couldn’t find our barns. They were flattened,” John said.

Water was pouring into their house from a ripped roof, debris was everywhere and their animals — including two reindeer and a camel named Kringle — were huddled next to the house.

“It just wiped out our farm completely. It literally leveled it, the whole thing,” Jodi said.

The Philipps, who own 2-Jo’s Farm, have raised the reindeer for years, and taken them and Kringle around with them as they portray Santa and Mrs. Claus. For 16 years they were a mainstay of the Fire and Ice Parade in Cedar Rapids, and they’ve taken their holiday good cheer across the region, as far as Illinois and Wisconsin.

It all started about 20 years ago, when they created a program called Dear Santa to provide Christmas gifts to children of families in need. They started with just a few families, and the effort quickly grew until they were helping hundreds. They began doing Santa visits to raise money for the program, and they’ve been doing them ever since.

“It’s pretty unique; you can make somebody feel good,” John said.

They slowed down and stopped the Dear Santa program when John’s health started to decline. He had a series of small strokes, followed by a diagnosis in 2019 of stage 4 cancer, nodular malignant melanoma. He enrolled in a drug study at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics that shrunk the tumor enough to be removed.

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Meanwhile, Jodi was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which she said doctors don’t believe is cancerous, though it does cause tremors and could cause further health concerns in the future, such as seizures.

When the pandemic hit they had to shut several shops Jodi owns in downtown Chelsea and cancel murder mystery dinners at their Chelsea bed-and-breakfast, Periwinkle Place Manor.

And then, the derecho hit. Their home was unlivable. In the days after the storm without electricity, their well didn’t work, so there was no running water. Their animals were without shelter, and the barns they’d used as feed storage were gone. The couple moved into their bed-and-breakfast driving back and forth each day to bring buckets of water for the animals from town. They built pens for the animals from downed trees. The farm finally got power again a month and a half ago. “You don’t really know how easy you have it until you have to live like that,” Jodi said.

Meanwhile, they opened the bed-and-breakfast up as free lodging for the teams of volunteers driving in from out of Iowa, helping with cleanup.

One crew, a family group, asked if they could help the Philipps. Jodi said they should help those in need. ‘You are someone in need,’ they replied. They helped clear downed trees from the farm.

“Jodi has a hard time accepting anything,” John said.

Another friend set up a GoFundMe to help them. When she learned a local teen that works at the grocery store where she shops contributed $5 to it, Jodi got emotional.

“A pastor friend said, ‘God wants you to learn to receive,’” Jodi said. “I have had to learn that this year.”

During a visit to the farm last week, damage was still evident. A partially collapsed barn is listing sideways. The house had visible damage to the siding and roof. The animals were using the garage as a shelter instead of a barn.

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“Everything still is laying flat under those barns and buildings,” she said. “We lived here around 22 years. This place was our favorite place to be. Now every time I come out, I can hardly wait to leave. It’s just so unrecognizable.”

While dealing with the farm, John kept working at his family’s business, a diesel truck repair shop, and they planned for the Christmas season. Santa visits would be an important revenue stream for the couple with the shops shuttered and bed-and-breakfast bringing in little.

But by mid-November they had contracted COVID-19. Jodi recovered quickly, but John did not. With oxygen levels dangerously low, he was transferred from the Marengo hospital to the intensive care unit at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids where he spent nearly a month before being released just in time for Christmas.

Jodi said she was afraid she’d never see him again.

“They said he probably wasn’t going to make it,” she said.

He did make it, though, but his health still is precarious. Cancer treatments are paused for now because his body is too weak to continue for now. He had pneumonia and blood clots in his lungs and legs, and he now has an irregular heart beat. He also is having some memory problems.

While John was fighting to survive, Jodi kept going out as Mrs. Claus, taking the reindeer and keeping their long tradition alive.

“She took it all on,” John said. “She loaded up the reindeer and got some friends. They helped her out.”

A friend stepped in as Santa. Some of the children were immediately suspicious — it was not the Santa they remembered. She had to explain that sometimes Santa’s helpers have to go out in his stead.

“He’s had some locations for 20 years as their Santa. He’s watched these kids grow up, and they come with their own kids now,” she said.

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She hopes that next year, John can be back out as Santa. But they’re taking things one day at a time.

“I have great faith in 2021. But we’ll see what happens. Every time I make plans, they change in about five minutes,” she said. “I’m just trying to stay very, very optimistic about 2021.”

They hope for more positive Christmas memories to come.

“It’s the most magical time of the year,” Jodi said. “I love to see their look on their faces, the families.”

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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