Sanford Morris brought joy to legions of sick kids at Shriners Children's in the Twin Cities, where for more than a decade he dressed as Santa Claus during the holidays and entertained them the rest of the year as the highly energetic "Ootz the Clown."
"He loved being a clown for the children," said longtime friend Larry Schoenfeld. "He really cared about children."
Morris' health had declined in recent years, and he died of natural causes Dec. 10 — his birthday — at English Rose Suites in Edina. He was 81.
Known for his dry wit, corny jokes and firm handshake, Morris was a longtime member of Zuhrah Shriners in the Twin Cities. He served as director of the Shriners' clown group, called the "Funsters," and set up performances and appearances in parades, including the Aquatennial and Celebrate Northeast in Minneapolis.
Morris donned a baker outfit and teased crowds by blowing horns and whistles and clapping boards together.
"He was an attention grabber," said Jim Burlingame Jr., head of the Zuhrah Shrine Center clowns. "It came natural to him. He liked to have fun. He was dedicated to what he did. Kids gravitated to him."
Morris' reach spread far beyond the Twin Cities. He honed his craft by attending conventions across the country and from 2006 to 2007 served as president of the International Shrine Clown Association. And every year he rode his bike to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, those who knew him said.
At one point Morris led a fundraising effort to bring a big-screen TV and provide video games for children getting treatment at the old Shriner's hospital on East River Road near the University of Minnesota.
"We didn't have that in the hospital," Burlingame said. "He was very influential and went out to raise the money. It went over big."
Morris dressed as Santa Claus at Nordstrom at the Mall of America, and impeccably when not in costume. He had sold fine men's clothing for a living and "always dressed like that," Schoenfeld said.
Morris liked elegant furniture and fine art, too. He had an oversized portrait of boxer Muhammad Ali signed by the artist hanging on his apartment wall, Schoenfeld said.
In his later years, Morris attended Temple Israel, where he loved talking with and giving advice to the rabbis. He earned the nickname "The Challah Man" for helping distribute the Jewish Sabbath and holiday bread during services, Schoenfeld said.
Morris was part of a social group that went to dinner after Friday services, Schoenfeld said. And just as when he was clowning, Morris was always focused on others.
"He never wanted to talk about himself," Schoenfeld said. "He always wanted to know what was going on with you."
Morris was preceded in death by his parents and son. He is survived by two stepchildren. Services have been held.