“Send me a redhead,” a leather-clad, long-bearded biker shouted amid the thousands of motorcyles parked at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium on Sunday morning.
Ron Wilson, dressed as Santa, kept walking, smiled, turned his head just a bit and said, “OK.”
“I’ve been good all year,” the voice shouted back.
For about the 25th time, Wilson, 77, was the first of thousands of bikers to ride to Hartman Arena in the Wichita Toy Run. Each biker dropped off a present for a child in need, and the gifts will go to the Salvation Army and Toys for Tots.
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Leading the charity ride every year is important to Wilson. The Toy Run is now in its 37th year.
Wilson was born in 1939 in Hiawatha, and he said he’d be lucky as a kid every year to get a new shirt, a pair of pants and a stocking full of apples and oranges.
He still remembers the big turkey Christmas dinner he ate every year, provided by the Lions Club and town elders.
Wilson is proud of his place at the front of thousands of motorcycles.
He moved to Wichita in 1986 after a long career as a trucker, when there were thousands fewer bikes in the event than there are today, he said. The first year of the event, in 1979, he said, there were reportedly just a few dozen.
He didn’t have a job then, so all he could afford to give that first year he participated was a box of crayons and a coloring book. This year, he had a remote-control car strapped on the back of his bike.
A year or two after his first Santa ride at the front of the pack, he turned 50. He wondered whether it was time he grew up, he said, and made some better life decisions. He was wilder back then, he said, and his oldest son was nearly 30. So he sold his bike.
But after six months, he said, “I decided I didn’t like being a grownup and went out and bought another motorcycle.
“I was a little old skinny guy, only weighed about 150 pounds, and had to wear a fake beard,” Wilson said of his first few years dressed as Santa. “I was a funny-looking Santa.” He still has to spray a little gray into his beard, but not much, he said.
He had to buy another Santa suit about a decade ago. Because of rain and snow, his second suit has worn thin, and he’s about ready for his third.
As he walked around the parking lot on Sunday, he was as likely to find himself squeezing an adult in a leather jacket as bending over to hear the Christmas wish of a toddler.
A couple of years ago, halfway through his 70s, Wilson decided to take a year off. His wife had had hip problems and couldn’t ride with him as Mrs. Claus anymore.
But his friends told him the Wichita Toy Run wasn’t as good without him. So he’s back.
Rebecca, his wife, said Wilson told her this year would be his last.
“I’ll believe it when I see it, because he’s said it before,” Rebecca Wilson said. “He can’t let it go; it’s too much fun, it’s too important.”
But if it is his last year, she said, “I hope that somebody else picks it up who loves it as much as he did.”