George Aupperlee has been leading the annual Eastern Pennsylvania Toy Run for more than decade.
Dressed as Santa Claus and riding in a Jeep, he guided the parade of motorcycles, jeeps and classic vehicles Sunday from the parking lot of Classic Harley-Davidson, Bern Township, to FirstEnergy Stadium.
Proceeds from the event benefit the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program and the Children's Home of Reading.
In past years, he was joined by his wife, Kathryn, dressed as Mrs. Claus in a red gown and cap with a striped apron. Aupperlee was at the head of the caravan of more than 300 vehicles again Sunday, but without his longtime companion and helper.
“Mrs. Claus passed away two weeks ago,” he said, emotion breaking his voice.
Aupperlee’s wife, who was known to friends as Kathy, died Oct. 15 at age 68. They had been married 23 years.
The couple were not yet married when Aupperlee first donned the iconic red suit and cap as a first sergeant in the Navy 27 years ago. For more than a quarter century, they portrayed the jolly couple for the toy drive and other events.
Their roles and responsibilities increased in 2007 when the annual Toys for Tots motorcycle run became the Eastern Pennsylvania Toy Run.
The toy campaign was nearly cancelled that year after deployment of the Marine Corps Reserve unit in Berks County. But the Armed Forces Brotherhood, a motorcycle club dedicated to supporting military veterans and charitable causes, stepped in to help.
Teaming with the Blue Mountain Jeep Alliance the Fightin Phils and Classic Harley-Davidson of Bern Township, the brotherhood combined toy runs to Toys for Tots in Berks and Lebanon counties and CHOR.
People driving motorcycles, Jeeps and classic cars were welcome to participate Sunday with the donation of a new, unwrapped toy.
Following the run, participants enjoyed free Berks hot dogs and hot chocolate on the stadium grounds.
“We will live, breathe and eat Toys for Tots for the next few weeks,” event coordinator Sue Koch said, referring to the time and energy that she and a core group of about a half-dozen volunteers will dedicate to the toy collection before the holiday season.
There is much work ahead, she said. Volunteers will place donation boxes, collect the toys and then count and sort them for family pickup before the big day arrives.
“I don’t think most people realize what all is involved with this,” Koch said, noting each child in need will receive three toys, a book, a stuffed animal and stocking stuffers.
Due to the coronavirus crisis, she said, there are a lot more people in need. The organization has seen requests for assistance double since last year, with more than 500 families seeking help.
The increase in need has brought an accompanying increase in generosity. Monetary and toy donations are up from where they were this time last year, she said.
Mrs. Claus would have been pleased about that, Koch said.
“Kathy really cared about the toy run,” she said. “She loved being a part of this.”