Children and adults in Upper Dauphin County will again be treated to the usual sound and sight of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve-a tradition that has continued since 1934.
The Rich Klinger Legacy Continues
In 1934, a four-cylinder panel truck decorated with evergreens traveled the streets of Lykens Borough with a jovial and generous Santa Claus offering treats to fascinatedchildren. Behind him, a one-horse sleigh kept pace urging all to keep the Season’s spirit alive and well. Santa, portrayed by Richard Roosevelt Klinger and his brother,Carlos, wanted to do something for the community.
That was years ago. The truck, a Chrysler Fargo, has long since been a discontinued model, and fickle weather has made Fred Cooper’s sleigh impractical. But that modest effort to salute Christmas Eve became an annual celebration which has grown into an established tradition and is still maintained by the Klinger family with the willing assistance of friends and neighbors.
One would have to be well past 60 years of age to even faintly remember life in the 1930’s. The depression, CCC camps, WPA, Joe Louis fights, traveling carnivals and minstrel shows, family and church picnics, and the Lone Ranger on the radio which opened and closed with the William Tell Overture. Life back then was exciting and uncomplicated for young children. The family as an institution was high on most people’s priority list.
Mr. and Mrs. Richard Klinger, Sr., were married in August, 1925 in Elizabethville. They were the parents of five children, Marie, Robert, Richard, David, and Donald. In 1975 they were the guests of honor at a Golden Wedding Anniversary party. One of the gifts they received from their children was an oil painting which features Santa on his truck in front of the family business (shown above). The senior Klingers are now deceased, as is son Robert, who followed his father in the family business.
Rich Klinger had been employed full time in the mines as were many people in the valley. In 1925, he opened a radio repair business on a part-time basis. The closing of the mines and the loss of his job in 1930 forced him into the radio sales and repair business. He had planned and saved wisely for the future.
Going into business for yourself involves a lot of faith in yourself and the hope that there’s a market for your services. Over time, Klinger built his radio and sound operation into a multipurpose hardware and appliance store that had become a community institution.
The Santa Truck eventually became a float, and while Christmas music was always part of the event in the early years, sometime in the late 1940’s Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” became the featured tune. A 78 RPM recording was originally used, but the song was eventually converted to tape because the record had long since worn out. In 1984 Autry sent a personal letter to Klinger thanking him for using his song as part of the tradition and wishing him many more years of success with the Santa Truck. (Note: Gene Autry passed away from cancer on October 2, 1998)
In the 1950’s, the use of portable generators enhanced the lighting and sound features and made the Christmas Eve event even more spectacular. The senior Klinger had since been replaced by son, Robert, who played the role of Santa for 45 years.
Son Richard Earl Klinger next filled in and became the general manager for the project, a responsibility he continues to enjoy as preparations are being made for this year’s Christmas Eve trip. His son, Richard Eiler Klinger, has been “Santa” for the past several years, and indications are that grandfather Klinger’s tradition will continue indefinitely.
The decorations on the truck (a fourth generation Santa Truck) have increased significantly since the first holiday drive through the borough. Now there is a wooden house with a chimney that fits on the back of a pickup truck, and this house even sports a mailbox. The number on the mailbox changes each year to mark the number of times the celebration has been staged.
A second holiday truck also joined the parade in the 1950’s. Herbert McElhenney, a service station owner, outfitted a truck with a sleigh and plywood reindeer. Now there were two couriers of Christmas joy to delight young and old on those cold Christmas Eves.
Soon, church members in Wiconisco, pleased with the custom but wanting to improve upon its secular nature, asked if they could participate in some way. They were welcomed with open arms, and built a scale model of a church on a pickup truck to join the procession. At the time, they also distributed presents of their own, plaster plaques with spiritual scenes and messages. A banner embracing the float advised onlookers to “Keep Christ in Christmas”. Several years ago, the Klinger family acquired the church float and they continue to maintain it.
Members of the Klinger and McElhenney families began to devote laborious hours to preparing and improving the floats, and began to lengthen their pre-Christmas run. Keith Bingaman acquired the McElhenney business, and still participates in the Christmas Eve celebration.
Santa’s Elves distribute 7,000 popcorn balls from both the Klinger and Bingaman trucks to the delighted children and adults who are young at heart.
For a time, the floats were enjoyed in the Lykens, Williams, and Hegins Valleys, and included the boroughs , townships, and developments of Wiconisco, Loyalton, Williamstown, Tower City, Porter, Hegins, Valley View, Hubley, Gratz, Elizabethville, and Millersburg. The trip ran from 6 p.m. until after midnight.
Over the last several years, the Christmas Eve travel schedule has been curtailed to the areas of Lykens, Wiconisco, and Williamstown. This has been made necessary due to todays increased traffic volume and to the rising cost of fuel, insurance and permits.
Of all the community activities Rich Klinger, Sr., has been involved with, the Santa Claus drive was his favorite, Richard Earl Klinger said. “He did it for other people’s enjoyment and his own. And my dad did many things for other people, and didn’t expect anything in return. That was his nature”.
“I hope we can continue this tradition for many years to come. Every year seems more remarkable to me”, Richard Earl Klinger said.
At about midnight Christmas Eve, the sound of “Silent Night” can be heard as the Klinger Santa Truck makes a final run through Lykens. By this time most young children are asleep, and parents and grandparents have the opportunity to relax and enjoy the wondrous event that will happen next morning. They also have time to reflect and remember their days of innocence and youth and all the joys of Christmas past.
Our Lykens Santa Claus
by Don Bowman
Twas the night before Christmas and throughout our town
Echoed carols of Yuletide…a glorious sound.
The kids and grown-ups all gathered as one
All filled with the spirit and caught in the fun.
For what to our eyes on the street did appear,
But a float with Old Santa without his reindeer,
Perhaps they were resting to travel that night,
Irregardless, the float was a beautiful sight.
With its gay colored lights and the fresh evergreen,
And the Jolly Old Fellow, it has to be seen.
To appreciate fully the spirit it sends
For the real Christmas feeling, the touch it all lends.
The grown-ups, the small fry, the young and the old,
With joyful expressions, this picture behold.
We ageing, glimpse memories of dream flown with youth,
In the eyes of the youngsters its visible truth
That Santa’s as real as the feeling inside you.
Conjecture no longer from those who might chide you
And truly a symbol for all who believe,
‘Tis better to give than to receive.
A serviceman home from far away places
Wiped tears from his eyes, but familiar faces
Of family and friends-told as clearly as chimes
That heart is where home is at holiday time.
And a consummate feeling of wondrous relief
Seemed to banish remorse and perish all grief.
The children with nothing and those who had all,
Scrambled as equals for popcorn balls,
And if Santa’s aim erred and he missed a few
The spirit prevailed with, “Here, I’ve got two”
Yes, dear hometown Santa, your spirit imparts
The tears and the laughter from our grateful hearts,
You renew the faith of our children and then
Rekindle our love for our fellow men.
Your Christmas Eve story for everyone
Lives through the year when the night is gone,
For the eldest among us has not learned to live
Till he finds that in life, you shall get as you give!
This poem was originally published in the Lykens Standard in 1959 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the
Klinger family’s “Santa Truck”.