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Grandfather's tinkering genius still inspires family's Christmas Grandson continues legacy of inventing

Mendal Evans was a baker, a tinker and -- as the holidays approached -- a big kid inside.

"It would start in October," said his daughter, Sandra McVicker.

Clever with his head and his hands, Evans each year would create a moving contraption to wow his wife, his children and then his grandchildren. Usually the inventions were mechanized and made sounds. Often they were huge.

He would dismantle them, stow them gingerly in his sedan, then reassemble them when he arrived to visit the grandkids in Detroit and Hornell. In 1957, the year of Sputnik, he made a rocket ship about 3 feet around, as high as the ceiling, that produced a sort of sputtering sound. Its payload for a few brief moments on Christmas morning was Pedie, the Chihuahua that became the new family pet.

Evans in 1962 made an elephant of papier-mache with a mouth that opened and closed. In 1965, it was an ostrich that stood well over 6 feet tall, judging by the way it dwarfs his son-in-law in a family photo from that year.

In 1967, Evans made a kangaroo that was just as imposing.

"I was greatly afraid of it at the time," said a grandson, J. William McVicker, who was 4 when he first gazed upward at its green glass eyes and heard it say Merry Christmas as his grandfather pushed a button. Young William would struggle to say "grandpa." It came out "bumpa" and that's what Evans came to be called as the big kid's tradition continued into the next decade.

In 1971, Bumpa retrieved an old plastic Santa Claus from who knows where, with gears inside to make it move at the arms and waist.

He added papier mache to give the waist more girth and always gave it yuletide prominence: watching over the neighborhood from the Evans' front porch at 23 Anderson Place in Hamburg.

Pink-cheeked Santa was a conversation-starter into the 1980s, as Bumpa's eyesight and health started to fail and he could no longer create new holiday surprises. But before Evans died in 1986, at age 77, the torch had been passed.

Grandson William was making a Frosty the snowman, then a bigger Frosty, and in 1990 a toy soldier with moving legs. In 1991 he made a spring-loaded Rudolph with a Clorox-bottle head, and in '94 a carousel that could be ridden by the children who would come later.

By the start of this decade, Santa had fallen into disrepair, and William McVicker brought it home to Cleveland. For two or three years it sat until the repair project this year took on some urgency. Mendal Evans' wife, Hazel, was failing at age 96.

On Labor Day weekend, a frail Hazel Evans fell, breaking her hip.

"She has had other setbacks in the past that she has rebounded from, and now she's not rebounding," William McVicker said. "She has pretty much made her peace and wants to be with Bumpa."

So back in Cleveland, a determined grandson took the Santa apart, cleaned and lubricated its rusted gears and put it back together. Then he called his mother, Sandra, who was caring for her mother. It was safe to tell Grandma Evans that Santa would return, he said.

This week, Santa is bowing and waving to the world from his familiar front porch.

Hazel Evans has moments when she is aware of what's going on around her and what's being said to her. When told of Santa's repair, the words registered.

"Oh that's so nice," she said, according to Sandra McVicker. "Mendal would have liked that."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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