Dale Thunker

Dale and Terri Thunker, of Yankton, have four children who are married and have children of their own — nine so far. Forty one years ago when their children were little, the Thunkers thought it would be fun for Dale to do a Santa suit and “visit” his children as Santa each year.

“What happened is, it was a family thing and we were at Terri’s parents’ house for some reason, I was kind of playing with the Santa Claus role,” Dale Thunker said. “Terri worked at a local store in Norfolk, JCPenney, so we bought a (Santa) suit and thought, ‘OK. We’ll go after it and have some fun.”

And they did have fun with it, though the suit did not last.

“It sat in our closet for two or three years and we said, ‘The suit is looking kind of grubby,” Thunker said. “So I said, if we’re going to continue having fun with this thing, I think we’re going to need to get a different suit; so we purchased a (new) suit in 1988 or 1990.”

“And I remember we ordered it from JCPenney’s — and it’s gorgeous,” Terri Thunker said. ”It’s red velvet and it was $350, and that was a lot of money for us, but it still looks awesome.”

Up until that point, Thunker had only been playing Santa for his children, but, as his wife put it, “He has a love of children,” so the couple offered a visit from “Santa” to a couple of close friends and their children.

Thunker has been playing Santa every year since for family and friends.

“So we started going to our friend’s house, to their kids, our kids’ friends,” he said. “We started seeing them at the early ages of say, five to nine, and follow them all the way through. And now that we’ve been doing this for 41 years, now we are doing the second generation.”

But it isn’t always easy having a secret identity.

“My voice, it’s disk jockey voice, so it’s a voice the kids recognize,” Dale said. “Recently, I went to my grandson’s daycare, and I walk in and I said, ‘Hi kids!’ and one little girl said, ‘Santa Claus!” She must’ve caught me at Beadle School (as Santa Claus). So that’s the crazy thing, I’ve got to watch what I say sometimes. That went over my grandson’s head and I changed the subject.”

It’s not that Thunker doesn’t want people to know, he just wants children to believe it’s Santa — at least while they are young.

“That’s my biggest fear. I don’t want my grandkids to know that it is me until they are at least of (a certain) age,” he said. “Because if you don’t believe, you don’t receive.”

To avoid being recognized, Thunker has learned to do a drop by, rather than an in-house visit, once the children are a little older.

“He has visited every grandchild until they are old enough to recognize his voice,” Terri Thunker said. “Then he visits their yard and waves at them through the window.”

Over the years, as the children grew up, the Thunkers have expanded their Santa Claus visits to schools, charitable organizations, nursing homes and a limited list of family, friends and neighbors.

“I’ve done it where my mom’s at, at Autumn Winds,” Thunker said.

“Basically all I do is sing some songs, get some cheer coming out of them old people. They have fun with that; it just brings them back to life. They like to dance and we’ll get a little dance with them, have some cookies and play with them, have some fun with it, too,” By playing Santa, Dale has found that sometimes Santa can bring cheer when no one else can.

“My first cousin’s wife was killed in an accident,” Dale said. “She was running — it’s been 20 years — she was out jogging and someone ran into her and killed her, and she left my first cousin with six children.”

“It was in the fall, right before the holidays.” Terri Thunker added.

Some of the children were older; the youngest was not yet two years old.

Terri Thunker, or “Mrs. Santa” as she calls herself when she is helping Santa make his rounds, drives the car, drops Santa off and waits, out of site, while he goes and visits. On the walk from the car, Thunker said, he was confronted by the fact that he wasn’t sure what to say to these children who had just lost their mother.

“I went in, and I remember the daddy holding the baby, and I said, ‘You know what, I was just coming down in the sleigh, coming down to see you guys, and your mom was with me, and she helps me get things ready for all the kids.”

“And those little kids said, ‘My mom told me that she helped you when she was in Crofton!”

Thunker realized that the children’s mother used to help the Santa in Crofton get his horse and buggy ready for the big Christmas event.

“I plum forgot about it,” Dale said. “But, what was cool about it, those kids, their little grade school pictures, they sent them to me. And they wrote a note on it … ‘Mommy, I love you,’ and ‘Tell her ‘Hi!’”

Thunker has been given many mementos over the years by both parents and children, including photos, drawings, letters to Santa and Christmas lists — and he has saved them all, and may even bring them with him as Santa the next Christmas to show the little sender that he got their gift.

“What we do is we get a list of about 10 families together,” Thunker said. We’ll give them the heads up a couple of days ahead and say, ’Santa is going to be in the area. Be prepared and get your camera ready.”

Thunker doesn’t always know what to expect when he arrives. He may talk to the children, pass out candy or hand out presents that the parents left outside the door.

“Once we went to (Terri’s) cousins and it was unexpected,” Thunker said. “We just went because we were right next door. Santa can some anytime, you never know. The little kids were just coming out of the tub, having their towels on and they are sitting on my lap, and they are shivering, but they are telling Santa Claus what they want for Christmas — talk about pictures. We’re bringing a lot of memories to a lot of families.”

Sometimes, being Santa is as easy as walking up and down his street handing out candy canes. Usually, Terri calls the parents from the car, about ten minutes ahead, to let them know that Santa is coming. One year, on the way to a familiar street, the Thunkers wound up searching for the familiar house, on what seemed like the wrong street.

“I drive,” Terri Thunker said. “And I’m like, ‘Where in the heck are we? There was a car behind me or some kids walking, and he said, ‘Just stop. Let me out. I’ll figure it out.’”

“I told Mrs. Claus that you might want to call and make sure,” Thunker said. “When I’m walking into the place, I’m going, ‘this isn’t the right 605 we’re supposed to be at. But it’s like someone’s grabbing me by the arm, pushing me to ring the doorbell. Anyway, I did it.”

At this point in the story Thunker became emotional, so his wife continued the story.

“He goes in, and there’s this woman with this beautiful lab dog and these three little kids looking at him,” Terri Thunker said. “Usually, they are our friends and he’ll grab the kids and put them on his lap, but these were strangers.”

So Thunker played Santa by standing near the Christmas tree and asking the children what they wanted. Once the Thunkers found the right house, Terri told to her friend how Santa had gone to the wrong house.

The next day, she got a visit from that friend, who told her that the house Santa had visited the night before belonged to a woman whose husband had just left her three days before.

“I found out I knew the mom and I saw her one day,” Terri Thunker said. “She just sobbed, and said, ‘You have no idea how that got the kids and I through.”

“He never does it for money,” Terri said. “It’s out of his love for children. He doesn’t do it for hire; it’s just for our friends and family.”

But there have been times where Thunker has played the role Santa as a favor, like he did one year, after a woman who saw him as Santa at Monta’s in Yankton called with a request.

“She said, ‘We have a coworker friend that is dying of cancer,” Terri Thunker recalled. “She has two girls that aren’t going to get anything, and we’ve collected money. Would you take it to their house? We trust you, we heard you’re respectable.”

Thunker called her back and said he’d be happy to help out. Terri Thunker arranged for the woman to be in the car with her, so she could hear right away how everything went.”

“The lady gave me an envelope and in the envelope was a little red stocking,” Thunker said. “So I walk into the house, and it looked like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, maybe one bulb in the ceiling fan, one light in the kitchen, no Christmas stuff there. What do you say?”

“So I come in and I have a great joy and I said, “Hey, girls, Santa’s elves and their helpers and your mom’s helpers, gave me a gift for you. And they open it —$1,000, 10 $100 bills.”

Some years the Thunkers have bought toys for families in need that they found through school or church and surprised them with a visit from Santa carrying a bag of gifts just for them.

“We didn’t just put them at the door and leave,” Thunker said. “The plus is that I got to do that with those families.”

Dale Thunker estimates that in the weeks leading up to Christmas, he sees 100-200 children every year as Santa, spreading Christmas cheer, telling them about Rudolph and the other reindeer and even having to prove he’s the “real Santa,” but come Christmas, he hangs up the suit and spends that time with his own children.

“It’s amazing what people will offer you to come and see their kids at Christmas,” he said. “But that’s a time for me and my kids. In the 41 years that I’ve been doing it, I vowed that (Christmas) is the time when I put the costume away, hang it up and spend time with my own family.”