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A tradition turns 100 — century-old teddy bear stays atop Santa Clara’s tree (PHOTOS)

By Erchi (Archer) Zhang | 3 Dec 2011

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Talk about a century of change.

In 1911, you could buy a gallon of gasoline for 9 cents. Santa Clara County’s population was 83,539. And William Howard Taft was president of the United States.

But for citizens of Santa Clara, one thing has remained the same: Their teddy bear has always been on top of the city’s holiday tree each December.

The tradition turned 100 Friday night and hundreds of people gathered outside the Civic Center on Lincoln Avenue to celebrate. From children perched on their parents’ shoulders to senior citizens with silver hair, they all sang “Happy Birthday” to the foot-long bear before it was raised to its traditional spot atop a 70-foot Colorado blue spruce. Nearly 1,000 colored lights decorated the tree.

Matthew Contreras, an employee of Silicon Valley Power, the city’s electric utility, said he felt lucky that his first year assigned to put the bear on the tree “just happened to be the 100th anniversary.”

Friday evening, hundreds of people gathered in Santa Clara to celebrate the 100th birthday of the city's teddy bear. (Photo: Archer Zhang/Peninsula Press)

The stuffed bear, appropriately named Teddy, made its debut in 1911. James Dixon, the utilities superintendent at the time, was in charge of decorating the city’s Christmas tree. One day he happened to see his year-old daughter, Alice, playing with her teddy bear in his office. Dixon thought it would make a perfect ornament, according to Kerry Hillis, a grandson of Alice Dixon (whose married name was Hillis).

Since then, the bear has fulfilled its monthlong obligation every December.

“An event like this, year after year, just reinforces the importance of the tradition in our history,” Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews said.

To mark the 100th anniversary, the Dixon-Hillis family was invited to the lighting ceremony. Kerry Hillis said his grandmother was very proud of the bear. “This is just a piece of the valley’s history that we are all glad that our family is part of,” he said.

The tradition as we know it nearly ended some 60 years ago, however.

In the 1950s, then-City Manager Joe Base thought Teddy was getting shabby and bought a new, more fluffy bear as a replacement, said Larry Owens, the manager of customer services for Silicon Valley Power. There are varied accounts of what happened next, but a popular version of the legend goes this way: Electric department employees were loyal to Teddy and made sure to put the old bear on the back of the tree while leaving the new one on top. The new bear then blew down during a storm and was never found. The old Teddy was saved from retirement.

Like humans, Teddy could not escape the inevitability of aging. Over the years, the bear got “worn out” and “became literally fallen apart,” said the city’s public communications manager, Dan Beerman. In 1987, a Santa Clara American Weekly reporter wrote that the city should “nix the bear” and “start fresh with a new mascot.”

The reaction of Teddy loyalists was instant. Evelyn Carmichael, the wife of then-Parks and Recreation Director Earl Carmichael, said she was asked by the current Assistant City Manager Carol McCarth to refurbish the bear, covering the old materials with furry tan cloth resembling the way toy bears looked in 1911. A daughter of a city employee donated a tiny yellow raincoat to keep it dry during wet seasons.

In the 2000s, Silicon Valley Power added a yellow hard hat so that Teddy “looks like one of the electricity utility employees” who “protects the city” from atop the tree, Beerman said. Through all these fashion makeovers, the bear’s interior material was preserved.

Usually, Teddy will only serve for one month each year, spending the rest of the time locked in a safe place inside Silicon Valley Power’s offices, where James Dixon once worked. But during the winter storms of 1998, city crews were so busy keeping power on for local homes and businesses that the bear had an extended stay. Birds searching for elements to fix their nests then destroyed the yellow rain coat to get the fur. Once again, Evelyn Carmichael helped Teddy with her needles and threads, and gave the bear the look it has today.

Alice Hillis, the little girl who began all this tradition, died in 2005 at the age of 93. A proclamation was issued by the Santa Clara City Council to the family, emphasizing the bear’s importance to the city. Kerry Hillis said he read it aloud at his grandmother’s funeral.

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