Teddy bears have a great mystique. Cute and cuddly and with lovable personalities, they are irresistible.
Other stuffed animals are just as cute and cuddly, but they don't win the same lifelong affection and loyalty as teddy bears from humans young and old.
"It's because there's something mystical about teddy bears," says Susan Wimbley, 45, of Parkville. "They take you out of
yourself. They give you the tactile pleasure of holding something soft and warm and they have sweet faces with loving eyes."
Teddy bears have a therapeutic quality, too, said Mrs. Wimbley, who makes and sells them as a hobby and is former local "chairbear" of Good Bears of the World, an international organization that provides teddy bears to children whenever solace can make a difference.
She told of an elderly patient in a Reisterstown nursing home who for years had said only "yes" and "no" -- until the group gave her a teddy bear.
"She clutched it to her heart and said, 'bear.' It was her first verbal communication beyond yes or no in all those years. It was a miracle," Mrs. Wimbley said.
Several years ago, a friend asked Mrs. Wimbley to make a bear for a little girl in Colorado who was born paraplegic. The child, who usually communicates only with her eyes, shrieked over the telephone when she saw the specially-designed bear in a jester outfit of very bright colors with lots of ribbons.
"I made it very exaggerated because she needed something special," Mrs. Wimbley said.
Regardless of people's ages or status, teddy bears have a universal appeal.
"I've seen crusty old vets at the Loch Raven VA Hospital cling to teddy bears and I've had full-grown men in business suits talk to bears on the street," Mrs. Wimbley said. "Teddy bears bring you back to a simple innocence, a soft innocence that just reaches into your heart and tugs."
Adult men are among active collectors, she said. More than 5,000 bears -- believed to be the country's largest collection -- belong to Paul and Rosemary Volpp, of Bremerton, Wash.
Police officers and paramedics also carry teddy bears in their cruisers and ambulances to comfort children at accidents, fires and other incidents.
And the Good Bears organization is relying on the bears' clean image in its anti-drugs poster campaign: "Teddy bears never take drugs of any kind!"
Although she still cherishes her own -- now battered -- childhood teddy bear, Mrs. Wimbley's enduring interest in bears began in 1983 when her daughter, Kelly, then 13, fell ill and was hospitalized for 15 months.
"I made her a bear, a big, soft chocolate-brown bear about 3 feet tall, smooshy like a pillow. It was a Moon Bear, from a commercial pattern. He was a big comfort to her," said Mrs. Wimbley, who learned to sew making clothes when her daughters were young.
Kelly's room quickly became a focal point for other children on the floor.
"I got hung up on teddy bears," Mrs. Wimbley said. "I made a bear a week to surprise Kelly; I made 50 bears that year, most of them from my own designs. She'd try to guess what was coming and the other kids all joined in. It was good for me and it was good for the kids. Kelly's room became sort of a teddy bear haven."
Mrs. Wimbley's house is crammed with between 350 and 400 bears in all sizes and descriptions. Many she made herself, others she bought or traded for, and still others were gifts from fellow "bear artists."
There's a jaunty Santa Bear, in red cap and coat for her year-old granddaughter, Samantha, to find on Christmas morning. There are boy bears in sailor suits, girl bears in middie blouses and a bear in a pink bunny suit with floppy ears.
pTC Jester Bears, in multi-colored horned caps and coats, vie for space with a private-eye bear in trench coat and fedora, and a merbear -- half fish, half bear -- sporting the blue ribbon it won as the "most unusual" entry at a teddy bear competition.
Among Mrs. Wimbley's other prize-winning bears are two large ones in burgundy velvet outfits called Jack and Sue Bear named for her and her husband, Jack, a Baltimore County planner, and Earl Webear, in his white Baltimore Orioles uniform.
As her skill increased, she received requests to replicate some of the teddy bears for other children and even for adult bear-lovers. From there it was just a short step from hobby to a part-time vocation.
Mrs. Wimbley, who works as a program coordinator in the Baltimore County Public Works Department, began designing and selling custom-made teddy bears under the name "Wim-bear-ly."
She estimates that she has sold more than 500 bears since she started, sometimes producing three a week.
They range in price from $40 to $150 but can cost as much as $300, depending on what a customer wants in size and accessories. For example, she said, she has created Jester Bears in special outfits color-coordinated with their owners' home decor.
Teddy bears reportedly got their name after news stories about President Theodore Roosevelt sparing a bear cub during a hunting trip. His nickname, "Teddy," was adopted and one of the most popular and enduring toys of all time was born.
Although commercially manufactured bears -- such as those from Germany's Steiff Company, which Mrs. Wimbley calls the "Cadillac of teddy bears" -- are desirable, collectible and expensive, Mrs. Wimbley said she prefers colorful "artist bears" like those she and her friends make.
"They are made one at a time and have individual personalities," she said.