Mrs. Claus the jolly bus driver brings Christmas to her students

In her 24th year of driving bus for Brainerd Public Schools, Marilyn Tepley smiles from the side window of her bus Thursday, Dec. 12, after finishing her morning route. As the holidays approach each year, Tepley decorates her bus and dons her homemade Mrs. Claus suit. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

From the outside, Marilyn Tepley’s school bus looks like any other big, yellow shuttle carrying children to and from school.

But when those bus doors open in December, Mrs. Claus herself greets students with her long red coat and festive hat, and welcomes them aboard her yellow sleigh, decked out with strings of garland, bright Christmas lights and shiny ornaments hanging all around the inside.

“I just love Christmas,” the jolly bus driver said one December morning after dropping her last students off at Riverside Elementary School in Brainerd.

“If you’re going to do something like this,” she added, “you have to make it fun.”


And creating fun is exactly what Tepley did when she began driving school bus 24 years ago.

“I always see all these guys dress up like Santa, and it’s like, ‘I want to do that,’” she said, explaining how her Mrs. Claus persona came to be.

So she bought a long red coat on eBay, sewed some white fur around the edges and became the embodiment of Christmas for her students.

But the outfit isn’t complete without a hat, of course.

“I have about five or six different Santa hats — different colors with different things on them,” Tepley said. “And I wear those first. And then usually the last week before school is when I wear the Santa coat because I kind of build up to it.”

“And the kids just love it,” she added.

All the students have their favorite ornaments among those hung around the walls of the bus, and she said they enjoy having the bright lights lit up on dark, cold winter mornings.


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With garland purchased after the holidays, Marilyn Tepley decorates the interior of her bus each year for the school children. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

They used to enjoy a wreath on the front of the bus as well, until laws mandated nothing extra can be on the outside of the bus. And in accordance with those rules, Tepley makes sure none of her decorations hang down in the windows or obstruct any of her views.

Not only does Tepley bring holiday cheer to her students via costumes and decorations, she also treats them to small Christmas gifts each year as they get off the bus before the winter break.

“This year I found a really cute … ornament that’s like a plastic crystal ball that you hang on your tree. It’s got glitter and stuff all over it,” she said, noting she’ll pair the ornament with a candy cane and perhaps some other holiday sweets.

Over the years, Tepley has run into past students — all grown up — who still have their Christmas tokens from Mrs. Claus the bus driver.

“I still have a lot of the stuff that they’ve given me, too,” she said. “I write their names on them because I get a lot of things, and I’d never remember. I get a lot of ornaments for my tree.”

Marilyn Tepley smiles in the mirror of her Brainerd school bus Thursday, Dec. 12, after finishing her route. Tepley has been driving bus for 24 years and dresses as Mr. Claus every holiday season. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch


So many ornaments in fact, that Tepley thinks she could decorate a whole tree with just those given to her by students, which is fortunate, given her love for the holiday and the winter season in general

“I’m supposed to hate snow as a school bus driver, but I love it. I get just as excited about it as the kids do — for Christmas and everything,” she said.

Tepley said her family attributes her fondness for the holidays and attachment to children to the fact that she never had any kids of her own.

“Well that could be it,” she said, adding it’s more likely the kids’ innocence that draws her to them.

“They see life from the point of view that is not tainted at all, and that excitement and joy, it really does give you the feeling of experiencing Christmas through the eyes of a child,” Tepley said.

She also enjoys experiencing Christmas through caroling with a group that dresses up in festive red outfits and visits nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

“They can’t get out, so it’s really nice that they can have people come in and sing,” she said.


Greeting her students during the holiday season dressed as Mrs. Claus, Marilyn Tepley feels it adds to the rider's experience during her tenure as a school bus driver for 24 years. . Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Tepley loves singing at Christmas Eve Mass, too, and also uses her musical talents on the job via a birthday rap she wrote to sing to her students on their special days.

After her operatic version of “Happy Birthday” didn’t quite gel with one student, Tepley asked for a genre he liked and ended up with her very own birthday rap.

“And the kids have learned it, and they all sing along,” she added.

When Tepley isn’t dressing as Mrs. Claus and rapping for kids on the way to school, she’s likely in her art studio drawing up illustrations for children’s books. So far she’s provided the artwork for several books, including “Voyageur the Moose,” by the late lakes area resident Ted Leagjeld.

Driving bus gives Tepley a steady paycheck and allows her to spend time with kids while also giving her the time to focus on her art.

That’s likely what she would dedicate more time to in retirement, if she ever decides to go that route, but at 65 years old, Tepley isn’t sure how soon she’ll be able to give up her bus routes. So for now she’ll continue driving and spreading holiday cheer as Mrs. Claus the jolly bus driver.


THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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