Carrying on a family legacy
For Bonnie Kniveton, visions of Santa Claus, with his red suit and fluffy white beard, mean more to her than just a cherished Christmas tale.
The jolly old elf is family.
While the Quincy woman didn’t grow up at the North Pole – she grew up in Benton County, actually – some of her fondest memories of her parents, John and Justine Winker, are of when the couple dressed up as Santa and Mrs. Claus.
For almost four decades, the couple dressed in their matching red and white suits and visited children and senior citizens, spreading Christmas cheer.
That’s why seeing Kniveton around town this week in a red suit herself should not be surprising. She is, after all, carrying on a family tradition.
“She’s continuing the legacy of her parents,” said Susan Lacy, who’s asked Kniveton, aka Mrs. Claus, to visit The Cambridge in the past. “She’s a treasure.”
For the past four years, Kniveton, dressed in her own handmade suit, has continued the family tradition, transforming into Mrs. Claus for such events as the Christmas celebration in downtown Quincy that’s held the first Saturday of December. Just this week, she visited several downtown businesses, passing out candy canes and wishing people a merry Christmas. She also planned to visit the Quincy Senior Center.
“I’m carrying on a legacy,” she said. “(My parents) were my inspiration.”
Kniveton said she especially enjoys visiting with senior citizens as Mrs. Claus.
“Doing it for the older generation …it grabs your heart,” she said.
At her home recently, Kniveton shared family mementos – photos of her parents as well as letters from people who her father visited as Santa over the years. She treasures her mother’s and father’s suits, which she still has.
“Maybe when I’m gone, hopefully (my grandchildren) will treasure these memories of their great-grandparents,” Kniveton said.
Married 65 years, the Winkers met as children at the age of 13. John Winker was a “railroader,” retiring as a track inspector. He was full of mischief and a great storyteller, Kniveton said of her father.
Justine Winkler had a variety of jobs over the years. At one time she was a postmistress. She also ran the Plymouth Grocery, which the couple once owned. While she was more reserved than her husband, she still had a wonderful sense of humor, Kniveton said of her mother. She was a peacemaker in the family, known for her calming personality.
“I don’t ever remember my mother getting mad at me,” Kniveton said.
The Winkers, never far from one another, were active in a variety of service clubs. When she was in high school, the other kids called her parents the Bobbsey Twins, after the beloved children’s novels, because they wore matching jackets to high school basketball games. John Winker passed away in 2003 and Justine Winker a year later in 2004.
“My mom and dad were my best friends,” Kniveton said.
A member of Kiwanis, John Winker started dressing up as Santa Claus as a fundraiser for the group. For $10, Santa would visit your home. John visited the schools in the Tri-Cities and was a Santa at a strip mall. He played the role for 40 years, much of that time with Justine at his side.
Later, when Kniveton moved to Quincy with her own family, the Winkers started making trips to Quincy as Santa and Mrs. Claus. One year, they visited the cancer ward at the Wenatchee hospital. Another year, they came up to give some much needed holiday cheer to Barb Kennedy, who lost her late husband in 1989 in an automobile accident.
“We were pretty devastated at that time,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy remembers John Winker as an easy-going man when he visited her and her two children.
“They looked the part,” she said of the couple. “It really lifted a lot of spirits.”
Now a longtime friend of Kniveton, Kennedy has seen how much the special Winker family tradition means to her friend.
“It means so much to her. She really enjoys it and she’s good at it,” Kennedy said of Kniveton. “She’s just a very nice lady who is very giving and does a lot of things for a lot of people.”
Lacy, the former activities director at The Cambridge, has seen the Mrs. Claus of Quincy in action at holiday parties with the young and old alike.
“She was wonderful. The kids’ eyes just lit up to see Mrs. Santa Claus at The Cambridge,” Lacy said. “She just immediately got into the spirit and she never wavered. She was Mrs. Santa Claus.”
— By Jill FitzSimmons, email@example.com