I AM Santa

As Christmas draws near, this white-bearded TriMet driver shifts into Santa Claus mode
by: Jaime Valdez Bob Foster, a bus operator on the TriMet 52 and 54-56 lines through Beaverton, uses his resemblance to Santa Claus to his advantage as he tools around town in early December. “Santa Bob” takes off work a few weeks in December to fulfill volunteer and paid Santa duties in the Portland area.

Some years ago, a woman in her 30s boarded the TriMet 54-56-line bus, took one look at the white-bearded, cherry-cheeked driver and spontaneously said, 'Hi, Santa!'

When tickled fellow passengers informed her that Bob Foster was indeed - during December in the Portland area, at least - 'Santa Bob,' the revelation apparently stuck with her.

'A few years later she got on the bus with a letter to Santa,' Foster recalls with a chuckle. 'She handed me a little card with a picture of her and her husband, with an invitation to go to the Christmas pageant at church.'

What started with the novelty of wearing a red cap behind the wheel gradually turned into a mini-career for Foster, who provides an answer to the eternal question: 'What does Santa do when not supervising elves at the North Pole?'

In fact, he drives a bus through Beaverton.

Specifically, the Hillsboro resident pilots the 52, 54 and 56 lines that snake through town along Farmington Road, Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway and Scholls Ferry Road.

Making a list

Foster, 63, has learned to make the most his of Kris Kringel-like build, visage and jolly demeanor. He takes off work for a chunk of December to fulfill his Santa duties. The married grandfather of three can be found ho-ho-ho-ing anywhere from toy stores to schools to Christmas tree farms.

'I take my vacation time to go out and do Santa things,' he says. 'Once your neighbors and friends know you have a Santa suit, you're doing a little bit for everybody.'

And although Foster does plenty of volunteer appearances, no one ever said Santa wasn't a smart entrepreneur.

'There is good income in it,' he admits. 'But I do this for fun. 'It's part of who I am.'

On Friday, Dec. 9, his last day of driving before Santa went full time, TriMet spotlighted Foster by inviting local news media along for the ride. Because Santa had an engagement in downtown Portland, it was a short-but-spirited jaunt.

'He takes off so he can really throw himself into being Santa for two weeks,' says Jessica Manly Bucciarelli, TriMet's internal communications manager. 'What we appreciate about Bob is that he's so warm and cheerful all year round.

'But in December, before he takes his vacation, he takes his hat on the bus and brings that out even more,' she adds.

Gonna find out

With a background in singing and theater, Foster confesses that piloting a bus wasn't how he originally envisioned making a living.

'My dream in life was to be a singer and a voice teacher,' he says.

While having a little too much fun in college pre-empted his earning a degree, Foster nonetheless went on to teach voice lessons for nearly 25 years.

Happening by a school bus barn with a fellow instructor, he first got the idea that he and a bus full of kids might make a good match. A subsequent 'cattle call' for TriMet drivers led Foster to his current career.

'It's something I've always enjoyed - driving and people,' he says. 'So it fit me well.'

Robert Romo, transportation manager for TriMet's Beaverton-based Merlo division, recalls the first encounter with his employee with a bit of awe in his voice.

'It kind of stops you in your tracks,' he says of the resemblance to the man with the toys. 'Then when I started talking to him he said, 'I am Santa.'

'I know he enjoys doing it, because if he didn't he wouldn't,' Romo adds. 'He feels in his heart he's giving back to the community in a great way. And I commend him for that.'

For goodness sake

Foster's Santa appearances started about 10 years into his TriMet career, when the Operators Committee would pick a family in the area and provide a Thanksgiving or Easter dinner at a local school.

Fully embracing his new role, Foster even attended a two-day Santa workshop in Portland, where he earned his 'bachelor of Santa Claus-ology,' he says.

'When I told my wife I could make $10,000 to $20,000 a year, she got pretty interested. My vacation time would not be wasted after all,' he says with a laugh.

One of his favorite regular appearances is at Loch Lolly Christmas Forest in North Plains, where he's outfitted with an antique sleigh and real reindeer.

He also enjoys volunteering at South Meadows Middle School for its 'Life Skills' program.

'I do this for fun,' he says. 'The money is there, but this is fun, to see the smiles on kids' faces.'

Being Santa doesn't end with Christmas Day for Foster, who strives to incorporate an upbeat spirit into his day-to-day work.

'I have immense power over people on the bus,' he says. 'When everyone gets off and I say 'Buh-bye' and 'Have a nice day,' they might think about that stupid bus driver, and it brings a little smile on their face, a little joy.

'Life is an attitude,' he adds. 'We choose how we want to be. Most people don't realize that.'