If you participated in the Susan G. Komen Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day this year (or, for that matter, in any number of Komen 3-Day events over the past ten+ years), chances are you spotted Mike Wingo. If the name doesn’t ring a jingle bell, perhaps you know him by another identity: Pink Santa. Mike and his alter-ego have become well-known around the world of the 3-Day®. But the jolly elf who hugs and high-fives participants in his pink suit and hat is more than a cheerleader, and his is a moving example of the strength of the 3-Day community.
In the early 2000s, Mike was not doing very well. “I was coming off a divorce and I was not in a good place personally. I tell people that hate was my cancer because I was mad at the world and mad at everybody.”
Around that time, a friend invited Mike to get involved with the 3-Day. “I didn’t know anything about it, had never heard of it. I didn’t know anything about breast cancer. And the sad part about it is I thought, ‘It’s going to be perfect because I’ve got this bad attitude about life and I’m going to be surrounded by all these people who have the same attitude because they’re pissed about getting cancer.’”
Wanting to stay in the background, Mike registered for the Gear and Tent crew, and he quickly realized that his prediction about what to expect was totally wrong. “I got to the event and it wasn’t anything like what I thought… I saw a young lady who was bald, obviously she had cancer, and she was smiling and laughing and joking around. And it shamed me.” All these years later, Mike still gets teary talking about it. “Because I was relatively healthy, I had 3 beautiful kids, I had a family that supported me, and it just shamed me. I was in a tent, somewhere in Fort Worth, TX, and I just said, I want to change. Instead of being a discourager, I want to be an encourager. Instead of trying to bring you down, I’m going to lift you up. A cheerleader for life.”
Mike came to that decision—he calls it an epiphany—and credits the 3-Day for bringing about such a profound change. He had caught the 3-Day “bug,” as he describes it. He shared another story, about a woman he met in Dallas in 2005 whom he had seen struggling all weekend long. He interacted with her several times throughout the event, helping her with her bags and setting up her tent, motivating her and encouraging her whenever he saw her. When he ran into her after the Closing Ceremony, “She held my face and said, ‘You have earned your place in heaven.’ She drove off and I was standing there just bawling. That’s when it struck me that as just an individual, doing things that I didn’t think were very big, I could really make a difference to somebody.
“I claim that the 3-Day saved my life. Had I gone down the path that I was going, I certainly don’t know what that would’ve led to, but it wasn’t good.”
Mike, who lives in Oklahoma, considers the Dallas/Fort Worth 3-Day to be his home event, and the Gear and Tent crew team to be his family. In 2007, he branched out and started traveling to other 3-Day cities (Chicago, Washington, D.C., Seattle and Atlanta) to crew, always returning to the Dallas/Fort Worth event as well.
So how did Mike’s passion and dedication for the 3-Day give birth to his secret identity as Pink Santa? “In one of the years here in Dallas, I think it might’ve been 2006, the 3-Day was on Halloween weekend, so we all came up with crazy costumes. I play Santa in my hometown, so I had a Santa suit, and I thought, I’ll just dress up as Santa. It was a hit. Everybody loved it, everybody had to have pictures.”
So Mike continued to wear the Santa suit for a couple of years, even when it wasn’t Halloween. It came to be expected. Then one of his Gear and Tent crewmates put the idea in Mike’s head that his Santa suit really should be pink. “She said it for a couple years, then one day she called me out of the blue and said let’s meet up.” This friend, who is a breast cancer survivor, took Mike’s measurements and later presented him with a custom-made pink Santa suit. From that day forward, Mike doesn’t go to a single 3-Day without it. Mike’s routine now is to join up with the Lunch crew on Day 2 of whatever event he’s at, lend an extra pair of hands while they set up in the morning, then when the walkers start arriving, he puts on his Pink Santa suit and cheers them in.
Mike has crewed the 3-Day 20 times, but the 2015 event in Dallas/Fort Worth marked a milestone for him: he walked the 3-Day for the first time.
What compelled Pink Santa to decide to walk after so many years on the crew? “I have a friend of 40 years, I met him in 6th grade.” Mike gets choked up again thinking about his friend. “Last year in September he got diagnosed with lung cancer. So that started me thinking, I need to do something else, something bigger.” The “something bigger” for Mike was finally taking the leap into walking the 60 miles of the 3-Day. “When I first got involved with the 3-Day, the fundraising intimidated me. I come from a small town, it’s very middle class, there aren’t a lot of big businesses around, so that intimidated me. So I thought I’d sidestep the fundraising and be a crew member. Well that lasted one or two years, then I started fundraising as a crew member. Over the years, I’ve gotten a pretty good support group, and I average a couple thousand dollars a year as a crew member.” Sadly, Mike’s friend passed away the day after Thanksgiving, 2014, but by then, Mike was already well on his way to honoring him as a 3-Day walker. “I was fully funded by the first of the year. I just had tremendous support, people knowing it was my first time to walk and everything.” Tremendous support is putting it mildly; in 2015, Mike raised over $3,600, and he has a lifetime fundraising total of more than $26,000.
You’ve probably guessed by now that yes, the Pink Santa suit was part of Mike’s 60-mile journey in Dallas/Fort Worth this year. “When I crew, Pink Santa comes out on Day 2, Saturday. When I decided to walk, that was the first question everybody asked: ‘What about Pink Santa?’ I said, well, I’m Pink Santa, so if I’m going to walk, I guess Pink Santa is going to walk on Saturday.” Mike got a special surprise from his old Gear and Tent teammates as well: they all wore “Pink Santa’s Helper” t-shirts and elf ears. “I walked around the hill and saw them all lined up and oh, it was just amazing.”
To say that the 3-Day has been a big part of Mike’s life is an understatement, just as it is for so many 3-Dayers. “It’s been a blessing. I wish I could quit tomorrow, because that would mean that a cure has been found, but I tell people, as long as there’s fight in me, I’m in this fight.”