For decades, he remained truly a secret Santa.
Each December, he’d walk into the office at Orville Wright Elementary School and hand over an envelope containing $100, an amount he doubled over time. With it came explicit instructions to buy gifts for students in need, which pretty much describes the vast majority of the kids in the Airport Neighborhood school.
Then, one morning a few years ago, a staff member recognized him when he made his annual pilgrimage to the school.
“Oh, that’s Bob Conway,” or something to that effect, she blurted. Oops!
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Santa’s secret ended. His benevolence did not. Conway continues to give to the children who live in one of Modesto’s poorest areas and walk to school along muddy streets with no sidewalks. He knows it well: He grew up there, too, attending Orville Wright School in the late 1940s into the early 1950s.
“It looked just like it does now,” the 73-year-old said. “We lived on Kerr Avenue, on the back side of the school.”
Conway’s mom died when he was 7, leaving his father to raise five children.
“I had a hard time growing up in this neighborhood,” he said. “The school was a real help – the principal, the teachers. ... I wasn’t the very best student in class. I can’t really tell you why or what ... it was just tough.”
He moved on to Roosevelt Junior High, then Modesto High, then Downey High.
“And then I was invited not to go to high school anymore,” he said. Too many fights. So Conway joined the Navy and spent three years at Pearl Harbor. When he mustered out in the early 1960s, he returned to Modesto and met Toni, who soon became his wife.
He worked for a can manufacturer, then her father’s crop-spraying business and eventually got into farming. Now he owns ConAg Farms and Valley Harvest Nut company. Three decades ago, he and Toni began making the anonymous donations to Orville Wright school, adding Fairview Elementary – where she attended – to their philanthropic endeavors.
Yes, a few members of Orville Wright’s office staff knew his identity, but not many. In fact, Principal Heather Sherburn didn’t know it was Conway until his daughter, Janine Runnels, approached the school recently about making it more of a family affair.
“And I’ve been here seven years,” Sherburn said.
In November, the family took all three of the school’s fourth-grade classes to see Modesto Christian Schools’ production of “Shrek” at the Gallo Center for the Arts. Janine is Modesto Christian’s band instructor. And for Christmas, they chose Claudia Courtney’s class of 17 fourth-graders to receive gift bags, telling Conway only hours before that he would be playing Santa, calling each student by name and handing out bag after bag.
“I had no idea,” he said. “It’s the first time we’ve done anything like this. I knew nothing about it until (Friday).”
His cover totally blown, Santa Conway spoke to the children from his heart, sitting in a chair at the head of the class. He told them that nothing should distract them from their schoolwork, that nothing should prevent them from having dreams and making them come true.
“Don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way,” he said.
He answered their questions, including the one about how he lost parts of four fingers on his left hand in an industrial accident.
Then, Janine took over to tell the children what was to come, pointing at Conway in his chair.
“He doesn’t need any gloves or jackets or shoes,” Janine told the kids. “So we decided not to spend the money on him (for Christmas) and to spend it on you instead.”
Her brother and some helpers then toted large packages in Christmas wrap into the classroom. Each package bore a name tag, and its contents catered to the individual student’s needs: a pair of properly sized shoes, a fleece blanket, a pullover sweat top, a personal hygiene kit that included a toothbrush and other items. It included arts-and-crafts supplies, a toy, a ball (soccer, football or rubber) and, of course, some candy.
By the time all of the kids received their gifts and said their thank-yous, Conway decided he liked this method of giving better than his old covert Santa ways.
“I’ve done this for 30 years, and for most of that time kept it a pretty good secret,” he said. “I’ve been through rough times here. This isn’t the best neighborhood in the world. I really enjoyed seeing the kids ... the glow on their faces. I really hope this will carry on when I’m gone.”