Faces Behind the Numbers: Vince Hittenberger
On Christmas, my uncle Vince became a different person. Usually, during family gatherings, I laughed at his jokes while he told our family’s history, and sometimes we stayed at the dinner table for hours talking about the Civil War. But every year around Christmas, the joke-telling history buff put on a red suit, and Uncle Vince was replaced by Santa Claus. My cousins and I loved when this Santa came to town. On his visits, he sternly told us that we had better behave, or else. I laughed along, but we all knew that he meant it.
Vince Hittenberger was a man of many worlds. For some, he was a proud biker who started riding motorcycles when he was 13. For others, he was a minister, most at home when preaching in Haitian Creole on the island where he was raised. But for a special few, he was Santa.
Vince was born in upstate New York in 1958. He spent his childhood in Haiti, raised by missionary parents. After high school, he went to Evangel College to become a missionary himself. There, he met his wife Tammy.
Tammy remembers how they met.
“The upperclassmen were assigned to make sure the freshmen had someone to eat with, or someone to hang out with, and so he and his friend had been assigned to me. And then we became really good friends.”
They had lots of fun together – and the motorcycle was always along for the ride.
"We went on rides out to Fellows Lake, and we went on rides all over Springfield. That was our transportation. I can remember us going to church one morning and it was a whopping 17 degrees, and we about froze to death.”
Luckily, that wasn’t enough to scare Tammy off. They married two years later in 1983, and had a daughter Erin. When Vince finished his degree at Central Bible College, the family moved to the East Coast. Vince preached to Haitians in New York, New Jersey and Miami. Eventually, they settled back in Springfield, where Vince attended church and became a proud member of a local motorcycle club.
Throughout his life, he was an avid reader, fascinated by U.S. history and family genealogy. Vince’s daughter Erin remembers his huge appetite for knowledge.
“He would kick everybody’s butt at Trivial Pursuit," Erin says. "Because he had a lot of useless facts, but they would work well in the game. Probably one of the smartest people that I’ve known. Mostly just because he never stopped learning. Every day was a new opportunity to learn something.”
Personally, Vince would want to be remembered as a guardian. Tammy remembers her husband as intensely protective of his family. In her opinion, sometimes overprotective.
“When my daughter was of dating age," Tammy says, "he would pull a gun out and make sure he was cleaning it when one of her boyfriends would come by, so that the young man understood that he didn’t want them messing with his daughter.”
Vince had a tough outer shell. But his mother Carolyn remembers him for his softer side, too.
“A fierce teddy bear," is how she describes Vince. "He had a huge heart. He loved fiercely, and when he didn’t like something he was as fierce with that as he was in love.”
Erin says her dad showed more tenderness as an uncle and grandfather.
“I know with my son, he would take my son to the library once a week. And they would just go and hangout and look at books. That was their thing.”
For his nieces and nephews, Vince was at his best around the holidays. His nephew Ben, who has Down Syndrome and autism, loves the Christmas season and sings Christmas songs at every opportunity. Tammy explains that one year, Uncle Vince decided to make that Christmas special for Ben.
"We borrowed a Santa suit, and painted his hair white and our nephew just loved it," she recalls. "I don’t know how many years later, Vince got to go out to their home, and Vince just took his [Santa] hat. And when our nephew saw him he goes, ‘There’s Uncle Vince Santa Claus!’ Years and years later. It was a small act of kindness that Vince did.”
When Vince got sick with COVID in the summer of 2021, he couldn’t get more than a few words out at a time without running out of breath. But on the night before he passed, the whole family came to visit him at home. Carolyn says her son came back for a few short hours to say goodbye.
“He joked," she remembers. "Our daughter Rhonda reminded her big brother of an incidence that had happened when he was trying to teach her how to ride the motorcycle. And when she said that, he said, ‘Yeah, you almost killed me!’”
When Vince left us, he was 62. It’s hard to define the impact of someone who lived as many lives as Vince. A patriotic biker with rich multicultural roots, a stern disciplinarian with a sarcastic wit, a protector who left his family too soon. But it may be best to remember him in a red suit with his beard colored white, because this Christmas, we all miss him.