Operation Santa, a Tradition Started by Dick Hibberd 60 Years Ago, Continues Tonight in Elgin

This is a long article, but I plan on adding all the memories that have been shared with me, so they won’t be forgotten. Merry Christmas and THANK YOU so much to the Elgin Fire Department for continuing this wonderful tradition that is so much a part of our lives.  Lori

After reading Lizzy Acher’s article, Totally True Christmas Traditions of Small-Town Oregon in the Willamette Week it suddenly became all too clear. She doesn’t have a clue. The paragraph about Elgin went something like this, “In the far Eastern Oregon village of Elgin, Christmas trees are displayed prominently in front windows. If, while walking down the street, you see a tree you like, it is customary to ring the doorbell and ask, “May I have your Christmas tree?” The residents of the home pick one person in the house to leg wrestle you, and whoever wins gets to keep the Christmas tree, decorations included.”

Yes, she was trying to be funny and I am sure there were plenty of people who thought she was, with her depiction of Elginites leg wrestling for Christmas trees, decorations included. I have to admit, I have read far worse renditions of life in Elgin, but as someone who has lived and breathed the cool air swept in off of the pine covered hills that surround Elgin, I never see my town the way those who have never experienced it see it.

Lizzy’s article did get me riled enough to begin thinking about Elgin and some of our great traditions. We have quite a few, but none are as well-loved and looked forward to as our Christmas Eve tradition of Operation Santa, which was started by Dick Hibberd in the mid 1950’s. According to his daughter, Mary West, every year he would buy a box full of trinkets then go around on Christmas Eve and hand them out to the boys and girls of Elgin. He never knocked on any of the doors; instead he would jingle a cow bell before bursting through the front door yelling ‘Merry Christmas’. Moments of fear were common until those inside the house realized it was Santa. Moments of embarrassment also happen a time or two when compromising situations were witness by Santa, who would depart those homes as quickly as he came in.

“One Christmas when I was in Junior High or sixth grade I went with him dressed as an elf, and helped him deliver the trinkets,” said Mary West about her dad.

Hibberd was more than just Santa. He was involved in Elgin in a number of ways. He was a charter member of the Elgin Stampeders and he severed over 25 years as drill master for the Stampede Drill Team. He was a 4-H leader of the Indian Valley 4-H Riders and was active in the Masonic Lodge.

Another Elgin tradition is the Elgin Stampede Suicide Race (now called the Stampede Challenge). Hibberd and his horse ran in the very first suicide race and took great pride beating the young bucks from around Union County and contestants from the Omak Stampede. He won the event for three years and was leading in two other races until he hit the river on his horse Ahab. For those of you who have seen this race, you know how tricky the river can be when horse run full speed into it.

Sometime in the 60’s Hibberd hung up his Santa suit for good and the Elgin Fire Department, not wanting the tradition to disappear, took over Operation Santa. Hibberd passed away in February 2002, at the age of 92, thankfully this great tradition he started lives on. The list of names that have been involved over the last 50 years is long, to say the least, but the list of memories that have been created because of this tradition is immeasurable. A few have shared their memories with me.

“My dad was part of this tradition long before I was around,” said Jennifer Smith. My brother-in-law, nephews, and husband have all done it as well. It has always played a pivotal part in our family. Presents can’t be opened until Santa arrives. That was, and continues to be, the hardest part of Christmas Eve.”

Loni Shepherd Williams remembered one Christmas Eve night of her youth, “One year Santa came to the door and he pulled out a candy cane to give to my brother. It was broken and he said something to the effect, ‘well, it’s okay, because you haven’t been that good this year’.”

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“I got married on Christmas Eve,” said Tami Sachse, “and Santa was nice enough to come by. I think they saw all the cars and thought there would be kids. They were wrong. I did have a house of people in various stages of intoxication. One guest, let’s call him Brian Thompson, made Santa sit down so he could sit on his lap. Poor Santa has NEVER come to my house again.”

“We have lived in various areas over the years,” said Teri Craig, “and have attended the cities/town holiday events, but I still remember the town of Elgin’s Christmas Eve Santa. The excitement of waiting by the window to see the blinking lights from the fire truck, the door opening without a knock and a Santa yelling, ‘ho ho ho’ as he jumps in the door. The little trinket that was so special because it was given to us by Santa in person. The time Santa took to say something to each of us that felt it was directed specifically for you. The warning, ‘be good and I will be back later tonight’. The adults laughing at our excitement, knowing who the jolly man was under that suit, then waiting in line for Santa to hand out the candy sacks to each child in front of city hall on Christmas Day. I have never found gumdrops as good as I remember those were. Do I remember Elgin’s Christmas Eve/day Santa tradition? Absolutely! Thank you Elgin for the wonderful Christmas memory.”

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For those of you who have never experienced small town living, let me tell you my version of it. By the way, I have been accused of wearing rose-colored glasses. I know there are those out there that despise small towns, after all, everyone does know everyone, and news, good or bad, does travel fast, but for myself, I love living in a small town. It’s comforting to know that if my car doesn’t start in the morning there are people I can call that would drop everything just to help me out. I’ve seen our small town raise thousands of dollars in a single day to help with medical expenses for someone in need. People look you in the eye in a small town and ask you genuinely ‘how are you today?’, which becomes the opening line for a 20 minute conversation on the sidewalk downtown. Small towns celebrate the accomplishments of individuals as wells as teams, and yes, when you do something wrong everyone knows about that too, but that isn’t all bad, it helps turn us into good people that the rest of our small town can be proud of. When heartache or tragedy strikes, the entire town feels it, and they help each other through it one day at a time.

A couple of years ago I had a small surgery. It was not a big deal. My closest friends knew what I was going through, but I didn’t see the need to let everyone know. Well, living in a small town, word gets around. Before I knew it someone had set up meals and desserts for us every night for week. It was such a kind gesture and made my recovery that much easier.

It is easy for those in the ‘big cities’ of Oregon to poke fun at small-town Oregon living, but those of us that live in one of those small towns, know just how special it can be.

Here are more memories from Christmas Eve of years gone by in Elgin.

Larry Kurtz was involved with Operation Santa in one way or another for 20 years. Here are some of the memories he has, including his first experience with the tradition.

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“Suddenly, Christmas Eve, we heard a loud knock at the door. I opened it, and there was Santa Claus. Chris was 12, Damon 8, and Ethan 3. They really got excited, even Chris, who I know didn’t believe in Santa Clause. By his voice, I recognized Santa Claus as Bud Scoubes. He passed out the toy and candy, said his Ho, Ho, Hos, and as he headed out the door he whispered to me, “Do you think they recognized me?” I assured him they didn’t, and they hadn’t. They had spent a lot of time with him the previous four months, but they were too taken aback and excited to recognize anyone but Santa Claus.”

Both Larry Kurtz and Bud Scoubes were my teachers at Elgin High School. Now I count them as great friends, along with many other teachers of my youth. Bud was also involved with Operation Santa for at least 20 years.

“Another fond memory,” said Kurtz, “was one year when the family who lived across 12th Street from us had a young girl, Amy McGinness. When the fire truck pulled up, her dad came around the house and handed me a puppy to give to Amy from Santa Claus. She was so excited. When I had her in class in high school, as either a junior or senior, she mentioned that in class. It was fun to tell her I was the one who gave her the puppy.”

“One year in the early 80’s,” remembered Kurtz, “we hadn’t been home very long when we got called out to a fire. It was cold, at least in the teens and maybe colder. We couldn’t save the house, they lost everything. That was a sad Christmas right after the joy of Santa Claus passing out his goodies.”

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Lisa Garcia recalls, “My dad, Cecil Churchill, uncle, Harley Churchill, and brother, Richard Churchill, and even my grandpa, were either Santa Claus, or involved with driving the truck. Even after dad retired from the department after 20 years, he still helped sack the goodies. When we were younger, we would watch out the window for the red lights and listen for the siren in anticipation of seeing the guy in the suit. Of course, when we were older we tried to guess who the Santa was for our neighborhood. Even as adults watching the nieces and nephew as they witnessed Santa coming through the door, their eyes lighting up and the larger than life smiles on their faces were priceless.”

The memories continue.

“I remember the first year our family was in Elgin. We knew nothing of the tradition of Santa on the firetruck. We had just sat down for dinner, heard a commotion in the breezeway and all of a sudden the kitchen door flew open and in came Santa,” said Pam DeChenne Strickland. “Ho ho Merry Christmas he said. We were all stunned, wondering what the heck? Wonderful memory! I got to watch my three children, nieces and nephes and now my grandchildren get to enjoy Santa as well. I remember Bud being Santa when my kids were small and he always took the time to let us take pictures. Poor man actually had the twins and my nephew, Kevin in his arms. They were six and seven months old and bawling, while Michael and Kyle stood next to him. Fun Times.”

“Bud loved being Santa,” said Janet Scoubes, Bud’s wife. “It made his Christmas.”

“I remember my boys getting so excited when they saw the fire trucks getting closer and Santa coming through the door,” said Carla Dooley Baker. “We have started my grandkids waiting and listening for Santa to come and give them their goodies.”

“I remember the year my dad played Santa,” said Twila Ivins, “my cousin, Annie Case and I were in line in front of the Opera House and I noticed my dad’s boots that Santa was wearing, and he had on my dad’s wedding ring. We were giggling like little girls do and then he spoke to us and I knew who was in that Santa Suit that year….those are great memories! A few years back, Santa came to my parents and my son, Keifer, was sitting on his lap and Santa asked him if he liked what he got last year and Keifer said yes, but do you know what you left me? And Santa said yes, it was that remote control motorcycle….Keifer believed for several more years, but I had to ask Santa how he knew that. His reply was, ‘Well Kiefer asked for it last year and he always gets what he wants’ and yes Santa he does!”
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“My first Christmas Eve in Elgin, my parents and I were just a little bit….okay…a lot…surprised when a fireman dressed as Santa busted through our door and handed me a bag with a candy and a giant orange…a great tradition that Elgin has,” said Elizabeth Syverson Allen.

“Some of my favorite childhood memories of Christmas in Elgin are being giddy with excitement watching and waiting for the lights and sirens, getting that lil’ paper sack of treats and the pop-up toy from ‘Firetruck Santa’, said Dixie Ann Walters. “Loved it and couldn’t understand how every town didn’t have this holiday treasure!”

“My little brother, Dylan, was, I think three,” said Melinda Connely, “and tried so hard to stay awake. Officer Weaver came to our house and was telling us we were the next house when a call came in over his radio that there was a house fire and it gave the address. It turns out it was my Dad’s shop that was on fire. We followed the fire truck out to my Dad’s and Dylan go to watch Santa and his elves fight fire on Christmas Eve. A memory we will never forget.”

Thank you Lizzy Acher. Thank you for writing your article. As you can see by all the memories listed, you got us all thinking and appreciating our small town. I am sure you had many people from small-towns across Oregon reliving the actual traditions of their town. I would sincerely like to invite you to come and experience Elgin. Whether you decide to ride the Eagle Cap Excursion Train (it is a beautiful train ride), attend a live play at the Elgin Opera House (these plays are fabulous), eat all you can eat fresh shelled crab at our Elgin Stampede Crab Feed (we serve 800 meals in about 3 and a half hours), or find your inner cowgirl at the 70th anniversary of the Elgin Stampede. You will not be disappointed. And if you find yourself in need of a little holiday spirit next year, visit Elgin on Christmas Eve and experience Operation Santa for yourself. It is an amazing tradition and I would like to thank Dick Hibberd for starting it so many years ago, and all of those that have dedicated themselves to making sure the tradition continues.

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