A Santa Claus of rare authenticity

December 24, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

HAGERSTOWN -- The 1986 red and black Thunderbird, license plates SANTA87, rolls through Washington County, a man of disputed identity behind the wheel.

Some say he's Bud Kline, a white-haired fellow with a soothing voice who owns an auto-body shop in the West End. Others say he's that most magical of men, a thin link to humankind's better

nature, Santa Claus himself.

Debra Hunt sees man and myth swirled into one.

"Bud Kline is Santa Claus," says Mrs. Hunt, marketing director at Long Meadow Shopping Center, one of many stops on Santa's itinerary. "When we see Bud it's sort of like no matter how we're feeling he gives us a spark of hope. He is the spirit of Christmas."

Mr. Kline looms 6-feet-2 1/2 -inches and weighs 285 pounds. He sports a long white beard and wavy white hair. His cheeks are flushed, his nose cherry red. He is our precise image of Santa Claus.

He matches the cozy and illustrious archetype we've clung to these many years since hopping upon Santa's knee with the innocence and hope of an unspoiled mind.

"A lot of kids tell me they don't believe in Santa Claus," Mr. Kline says in a deep voice. "So I make them write 'Christmas' on a piece of paper. Then I tell them to scratch 'Christ' out of it, and what have they got? Nothing.

"It's the same with Santa Claus. I tell them, 'When you stop believing in Santa Claus, Christmas changes forever. When you stop believing in Santa Claus, Christmas is just another day.' "

Christmas for Bud Kline has been magical all his 56 years. But for the past 27 years, since he has portrayed Santa Claus, it has become almost mystical.

The transformation was born out of the same holiday greed that Mr. Kline condemns today. He sold Christmas trees at the gas station he owned in 1966, and he figured he could sell more if he dressed up like Santa Claus.

"There was this little retarded boy," Mr. Kline recalls. "He hung onto me the whole time. He couldn't talk. The only sound he could make was 'ho-ho, ho-ho.'

"I don't know what it was about that little boy. He just touched me, is the easiest way to say it. From that moment on, this became part of my life."

He let his beard and hair grow, and they grew out white, although he occasionally shampoos his hair with Comet to rinse out the yellow tones. Requests poured in until he was booked solid from the first of November until Christmas.

He works craft shows in Howard and Montgomery counties, but mostly he appears in Washington County at charity events, hospitals, company parties and anything from community functions to gatherings in homes.

He and his wife, Doris, his scheduler, counted more than 170 appearances last Christmas season. Some days, he figures, he's held 2,000 children on his lap.

This past Saturday he worked from 8 a.m. until midnight. He doesn't charge, he says, but accepts donations.

Mr. Kline worked at a mall once -- but never again. "They commercialize it too much for me," he says.

One night this week he visited Brook Lane Psychiatric Center near Leitersburg. He approached a middle-aged woman sitting in a corner. She looked at him with frightened eyes.

"I've had a bad day," she said.

"Maybe I can cheer it up a little bit," he said.

spent five minutes talking to the woman. She finally smiled weakly.

A teen-aged girl reluctantly sat on his lap, and he asked what she wanted for Christmas. She said, "My mom."

She began to cry, and tears welled in Mr. Kline's eyes.

An hour later at the Williamsport Nursing Home, Mr. Kline, sweating profusely, his feet aching, lumbered in and out of the overheated rooms, distributing candy canes. He peered into a woman's pained face.

"Maybe I can make you feel better," he said.

She did not reply.

"I wish I could," he said.

He brushed his right hand along her face.

"Merry Christmas," he said softly.

But most people, young, old and in between, swell with joy at the sight of this man who looks and acts incredibly like Santa Claus. When he lights up a room you forget that the world outside has turned crazy.

One person who always beams at this Santa Claus is Mr. Kline's 33-year-old daughter, Debby Kendrick of Hagerstown. She grew believing her father was Santa Claus.

"Part of me still believes," says Mrs. Kendrick, who has two children of her own, a 5-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son.

He does generous things for people year-round, she says. And he usually wears red clothes, even in summer. At a restaurant, Mrs. Kendrick says, children stare and ignore their food. All he has to do is shake a finger, she says, and they start eating because Santa Claus is watching.

"I think it's kind of like 'Miracle on 34th Street,' " his daughter says. "I think he really believes it himself. It's just kind of become his life."

Mr. Kline plans on living the rest of his life as he has the past 27 years, dressing in his red suit at Christmastime and spreading hope and happiness.

When his life is over, he says, he has requested that he be buried in his Santa suit.

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