By Meg Grant
Updated December 20, 1993 12:00 PM
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Dear Santa,

My name is Michelle. My brother is Michael Jr. We both want a training bicycle for Christmas, but brother said he wanted one last year but didn’t get one. My daddy works at a sawmill…. He said next year we’ll have our trailer paid for and we’ll have more money, but if you are real please leave me and brother a bicycle that’s all we are asking for.

YES, MICHELLE, THERE IS A SANTA. This Christmas, as he has for 15 years, he will be bringing bags of toys to children throughout the impoverished Blue Ridge mountain region of South Carolina. Like Michelle and Michael, hundreds of kids will gel bikes this year.

The Country Santa, as he has come to be known, is John “Buddy” Cox, 43, but he doesn’t care to be compared to St. Nick. “I’m just one of his helpers,” he says. Maybe so, but Cox’s list of recipients is now 1,400 kids long and growing at a rate of about 200 a year.

It all started with one first-grade girl, shortly after Cox and his wife, Nelle, moved from Greenville, S.C., to tiny Pumpkintown (pop. 200) in the northwest corner of the state. The girl arrived at school needing new shoes, and Cox, a water-waste equipment sales engineer and head of the Baptist Sunday-school nursery in town, heard about her plight and bought her a pair. It was then that he noticed the tattered condition of her doll, so that Christmas a replacement—”the biggest boxed doll I could find,” says Cox—arrived under the girl’s Christmas tree.

The next year, with names provided by the elementary school, Cox provided toys to 10 children. By the fifth year the list had grown so long that Cox began soliciting toys, new and used, from the area’s more fortunate citizens. He signed up volunteer “elves” to help deliver them. Four years ago he built a 900-square-foot warehouse to store the toys, which are gathered from eight collection points throughout the year. In the corner, amid Cabbage Patch dolls, teddy bears and game boards, is a circular table from which Cox, using a laptop computer, a fax machine and a portable phone, directs the elves.

The children’s names come to Cox via local schools, churches and social service agencies. Some kids contact him indirectly, their letters, addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole,” finding their way to him. (Actually it’s P.O. Box 856, Pickens, S.C. 29671.) Says Nelle, 42, a high school English teacher: “You assume that at Christmas everyone has a tree and presents until you learn about these kids. One child wrote and asked for a coat so he wouldn’t catch a cold as he did last year.”

Cox draws inspiration from his own youth. When he was 10, his dad, a construction superintendent, walked out on the family, leaving his mother to support Buddy and two older sisters in the rural South Carolina town of Cross Hill. “She got a job as a bookkeeper, making $50 a week,” Buddy says, “and I know she had to struggle to put something under the tree for us at Christmas. I realized parents can hurt when they can’t give their kids something.”

Cox may also have been motivated, at least at first, by the fact that he and Nelle were unable to have children of their own. Then, in 1982, three sisters at the Miracle Hill Children’s Home, where Buddy served on the board, became available, and the Coxes adopted them.

Since then, the girls, Donna, now 16, Deanna, 17, and Karen, 19, have become elves in good standing, helping match toys with requests. On the day before Christmas, some 80 volunteers, their cars loaded with gifts, fan out around the countryside, some traveling 150 miles. Cox asks his drivers not to make a show of what they are doing and to avoid the children if their parents want it that way. “We don’t want to strip pride from anyone,” he says, “and we don’t want people to have to eat humble pie to get these gifts.”

Late on Christmas Eve, the Cox family goes to bed with full hearts, “knowing,” says Buddy, “there are kids all around the county who are going to be happy tomorrow, which is really what Christmas is about.”

Occasionally the deliveries spill over to Christmas Day. A few years ago, Buddy refused to celebrate with his own family until he’d made one last try to locate the home of a little boy on his list who had asked for a bike. When Cox finally located the house, a dilapidated place off an old dirt road, the boy was sitting out front, drawing with a stick in the mud. “I felt a little embarrassed about the bike,” says Buddy, “because it still had a baby seat on the back that I hadn’t had lime lo remove. But the boy broke out into a big smile when he saw it. ‘I can take my baby sister for a ride,’ he said.”

Cox leans against the hood of his truck and folds his arms across his chest. “Some people say, ‘I’m not gonna help these people, they can help themselves,’ ” he observes. “But kids can’t help it. Hopefully, what we do will motivate them to one day turn around and lend a hand.”