For 50 years in Omaha, needy families have received gifts at Christmas from a mysterious character named Idar Oberstein.
He pronounces it Ee-der Ober-stine. But families could never mail Idar a letter of thanks because he never left an address. He also wouldn't pose for pictures with them, preferring to remain anonymous.
Over the years he also has played Santa Claus, but that's separate — and any money he's made for doing so has simply helped pay for presents delivered by Idar.
So who is this fellow, and what's the story behind Idar Oberstein?
“I don't think names are important,” he said. “Ideas are. I find out about a family, send them a letter signed 'Idar Oberstein' with my phone number, and then visit to find out what their needs are.”
Then he returns — in civilian clothes as Idar, not as Santa — usually with a combination of clothing and toys.
Idar, as you have figured out by now, is not his real name. So what is it? And after a half-century, isn't it time to be — so to speak — unmasked?
Not that “Idar” has ever worn a mask. He wears a smile. And he doesn't think he deserves public acclaim, he said, because he just enjoys helping people.
“I wouldn't do this,” he said, “if it didn't make me feel good.”
A lifelong Omahan, he grew up as the son of a pharmacist who worked at 24th Street and Ames Avenue. His mother worked for Catholic Charities.
He dropped out of high school and aspired to become a gag writer. He sold an idea to a New York cartoonist, who said the finished product was purchased by The Wall Street Journal.
The young man would stop at the old newsstand at 16th and Farnam Streets downtown, leafing through the Journal so often that the Radicia brothers, who owned the stand, would say: “Are you ever going to buy a paper?”
Finally! He found it and bought all nine remaining copies.
His gag showed an unhappy child sitting on the lap of a bewildered Santa, the kid saying: “Before we talk about this year — what happened last year?”
The Omahan, then about 20, received a 25 percent cut for the cartoon — $3.
He received a high school equivalency diploma and, in 1959, he was drafted into the Army, which was fine with him. In fact, he was so grateful when he passed the physical that he took out a personal ad in The World-Herald for a week.
The ad was a Dale Carnegie thought: “A mere man alone can easily be defeated, but a man alive with the power of God within is invincible.”
The young man soon was sent to Germany, stationed in a town not far from Frankfurt — called Idar-Oberstein.
His stay was extended because of the Berlin Crisis. When he got out of the Army, he took a boat to America and then a three-week tour by buses that included New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago.
In Omaha, he got a job with the First National Bank — the start of a 47-year career, which started ingloriously as a “coin wrapper.”
He soon became a bill collector on past-due accounts that the bank had bought from local stores. He called a woman in Waterloo who was two $7-per-month payments delinquent on a washer and dryer.
After hearing her sad story, he felt so bad that he went to the Brandeis department store, bought some presents and had them sent. He didn't want her to know they came from the bill collector, so he signed the delivery “Idar Oberstein.”
That was the beginning of Idar's annual gift-giving at Christmas. Sometimes he would help four or five families at a time. Now, getting older, he donates to one — this year, a single mother of three who is in nursing school.
He is a lifelong bachelor, and he says he regrets not having a family of his own. He has helped many as Idar and has visited many private parties and homes as Santa Claus — so much so, he says with a laugh, that “Jingle Bells” practically drives him crazy.
Playing Santa is fun, he said, but also hard work. He'll have made 35 to 40 stops as Santa this season, including eight tomorrow on Christmas Eve.
“If I had a family, I wouldn't do any of this,” he said. “I'd take care of my family. I've missed not having a family.”
More than 40 years ago, he was sweet on a gal named Alice and took her along on one of his Idar Oberstein gift deliveries. He was prematurely balding, but he hoped she would be attracted to his kind and giving nature.
The woman at the door accepted gifts for her children with gratitude. With tears in her eyes, she turned to his date and said: “I don't know how to thank you and your father.”
His hoped-for romance didn't blossom.
Through the years, though, there has been much humor. Twice he has shown up at the wrong house, which he said was hilarious. Another time he arrived with a turkey under his arm and the resident said, “I asked for a ham.”
Playing Santa at a house party, he asked a little girl if she had been good and had picked up her room and listened to her mother. Before he reached into his bag for a present (provided by her family), the child asked matter-of-factly: “Whattya got?”
If he ever writes a book, he said with a smile, he would title it, “Whattya got?”
Idar and Santa are alter egos for this good man with so little ego. I found out his name from Liz and Robert Appleby of Omaha, who have driven him at times.
“But he doesn't want his name in the paper,” Liz said. When I expressed reluctance to write about someone without telling readers his name, she and Robert both said, “Please call him. He's wonderful.”
In our first interview, he expressed great reluctance. But he openly told me stories of his years as Idar Oberstein.
One time a woman came into the bank and noticed a keepsake on his desk — he had kept it from his time in Germany. She became wide-eyed when she saw that it said, “Idar-Oberstein.”
She remembered the name and said that her daughter — who was a little girl when a man named Idar Oberstein had delivered Christmas presents — was now a nurse.
That was one of only a couple of times that a recipient ever learned the true identity of the man who claimed he was Mr. Oberstein.
But maybe others whose lives he touched will read this column and find out now. In our second interview, I asked if, after 50 years as Idar, he would reconsider and allow me to use his name.
Not that he has anything to hide, but he was reluctant. He urged me to mention the names of his “elves” over the years, such as the Applebys and others: Dean and Laverna Liekhus, Jim and Zita Noonen, Bill and Miriam Gdovic, Jim and Joann Raleigh, and Dick and Theresa Hall. (Many others, he said, have helped as shoppers.)
All of them have been proud to say that their kind-hearted, good-humored and modest friend is named — Doug Ryan.
Yes, Doug reluctantly gave me the OK.
He remains active at 76, and not just at Christmas. He is an avid golfer. He reads a lot and calls himself self-educated. He is glad to have been able to help people.
After attending church on Christmas, he will enjoy a buffet brunch with friends. And then rest.
He lives in an apartment in his hometown not far from 90th and Dodge Streets but very far from a town called Idar-Oberstein.
That name has suited him well all these years, but so has his real name. Doug Ryan regrettably never had children of his own, but he has enjoyed helping so many others.
“Alive with the power of God,” as his Dale Carnegie quotation says, he hopes to continue to do so “until my last breath.” The work of Idar Oberstein is far from over.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, email@example.com