A Santa's workshop in an Owings Mills cellar


At Thanksgiving, every part of the basement of Jean Sykes' Owings Mills home overflowed with Christmas toys. Dolls, books, games, stuffed animals, baby rattles and such sat ready in a workroom, club room, utility room with the furnace and washer and dryer, even piled high in a bathtub.

In early December, organizations began carrying them away.

Today, the basement stands empty of toys. It is the official end of Mrs. Sykes' 40th -- and maybe last -- year of being "Mrs. Santa Claus," or the "Toy Lady" or "Lady Santa Claus."

During the past four decades, Mrs. Sykes has collected, repaired, restored, repackaged, organized and distributed used toys every Christmas for an uncalculated number of needy children along the Reisterstown Road corridor.

This year she figures the basement held about 1,500 refurbished toys at its peak, organized by age groups and packaged in clear plastic bags for pickup.

Last year, 311 children in 138 families received toys from her basement workshop. This year's final figures still are being tabulated, but the 1993 total should be higher, she says.

"This started in 1953 when I helped the county Police Department with distribution to the needy," says Mrs. Sykes, who has a son, a daughter and five grandchildren. "I saw right away there needed to be a better system so more could be served."

She developed a clearinghouse idea, the clearinghouse being her own home. She gained her nicknames quickly and they stuck. Her husband, David, a retired attorney, has gotten used to a basement full of toys in the months before Christmas. He had no choice.

The annual Sykes toy harvest traditionally starts each September when Reisterstown Elementary School and Sacred Heart School in Glyndon hold toy drives for her. But at almost any time during the year, she may find bags of toys anonymously left at her door.

Mrs. Sykes, who laughingly gives her age as "sweet 16 plus," works at tables set up in the multiroom basement. She still does as much of the repair herself as she can, but over the years she's gathered a cadre of volunteers.

"Many people help me," she says, and starts naming a few.

"For years, my housekeeper, Martha Tabares, has been taking things home with her at night to work on. She loves to help with puzzles. Four ladies -- Frances Crone, Ruth Strasser, Ruth Farber and Jean Sussman -- repair dolls. They've been very faithful."

The county Department of Social Services supplies the names of the needy, although some originate with churches and other organizations.

"Our Aid to Families with Dependent Children recipients fill out forms if they want to be helped with food or toys at Christmas," says Lindy Park, director of volunteer services for the department. "Jean puts together the toy portion for her area. She's very systematic and organized. She sets up the distribution."

The distribution is through groups like the Reisterstown Kiwanis Club, Pikesville-Randallstown and Reisterstown Lions clubs, the Reisterstown Jaycees, churches and some businesses who come to the Sykes home to try to match toys to the children's requests.

"Sometimes it can be absolutely hilarious seeing adults around all the toys, the way they try to make the choices," Mrs. Sykes says.

In 40 years of doing this, she has observed the evolution of the toy world.

"A big change is that there are so many more different kinds of toys," she says. "Toys used to be wood. I'd have to paint and paint. Now everything is plastic. I don't have nearly as much to do to get them ready.

"A lot of the toys have become so technical. Sometimes I need a mastermind to help me with them."

The Toy Lady has kept records meticulously by hand in notebooks -- lists of organizations and contacts, who picked up what and when, who's responsible.

And, along the way, she's developed some Sykesian rules on these toys. She's pretty firm about them.

* No. 1: No toy guns. "I immediately throw all the guns in the trash, even the click-click kind."

Also, no toy bows and arrows.

* No. 2: "Unless it's a safe toy, I don't consider it. Nothing leaves here until I'm sure it's safe and complete."

* No. 3: No toys in the house at the end of the season. Many extras go to the Allen Center for Senior Citizens in South Baltimore for repair and distribution there (she took eight loads down this year) and to the county social services department's toy stores.

* No. 4: The groups who distribute the toys are not to reveal the source. "I'm Mrs. Anonymous. I'm gratified enough just to be doing it; I don't need the publicity."

"We know how she feels and we respect her wishes," says William Lentzner of the Kiwanis Club of Reisterstown. "The families are so happy to get the toys. As far as the kids are concerned, the gifts came from Santa Claus."

Or Mrs. Santa Claus in this case.

Mrs. Claus talks freely about her work but diverts the conversation when asked about herself, offering two large scrapbooks instead.

Others are not reluctant to praise her. The two scrapbooks are full of letters, awards and commendations.

"She's a great lady," Mr. Lentzner says, "just a great lady."

He recalls the time Kiwanis wanted to honor her but told her ahead of time. Organizers had to talk her into attending the ceremony. The Reisterstown Lions Club learned from that. When members decided she was their "Citizen of the Year" in 1989, they did it as a surprise.

"In all the years I've known her, she's never let us down," says Jane C. Doble, director of the Allen Center.

But Mrs. Sykes worries about the future of her work. She's had health problems this year -- a heart attack in January and two glaucoma operations -- which she says are forcing her to "retire" from the toy business.

Even so, she attacked this year's collection with energy and enthusiasm.

"I have to start trying to find someone to succeed me," she says.


"A lot of room for the toys, and a lot of patience."

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