Kansas grade school principal spreads Christmas cheer in a unique way

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Ryan Cunningham and his daughter, Karlee, on crosswalk duty dressed up. (Courtesy Karen Cunningham)

MEDICINE LODGE, Kan. — The beginning of the Christmas break can be a welcome sight for students who want a change from their routine, but a Kansas grade school principal has put a new twist on spreading the Christmas spirit.

Ryan Cunningham, principal at Medicine Lodge Grade School, has an out-of-the-box idea to bring the Christmas spirit to his students — and it involves dressing up as beloved movie character Buddy the Elf.

Cunningham said that his family gave him the idea, and it stemmed from a family tradition derived from the movie.

“I’ve always been a fan of the ‘Elf’ movie, just thought it was funny,” Cunningham said. “My family, we would have ‘Elf’ nights at the house, you know, bottles of coke, spaghetti and syrup, you know, the whole thing.”

Cunningham on crosswalk duty (Courtesy Karen Cunningham)

“My sister actually got me the costume. I think that was probably five or six years ago. She got the costume, and I thought, ‘Hey, this might be something that would be kind of fun.'” Cunningham continued.

The crosswalk, which is reminiscent of the scene in the movie where Buddy jumps across the crosswalk in New York City, was a total coincidence. Cunningham was already involved with the crosswalk duty because he likes to check in on his students before the day gets started.

For Cunningham, it is less about being popular and noticed and more about connecting with his students.

“It builds connections with the kids, and it’s something that they’ll remember, and it’s fun for me.”

Buddy the Elf is not the only character that Cunningham has portrayed. Tammy Lonker, who works as a district testing coordinator for the school district, said that he had done other characters for school assemblies in the past.

“Every year, we had assemblies before our testing season in the spring, and Ryan was always game to do whatever he could to encourage and get the kids pumped out,” Lonker said. “Some of his first characters were (fictitious) ‘brothers’ who would show up for the assemblies to pep everyone up. They always had a name that began with ‘R’ (Randy, Rocky, etc.). One was a professional athlete, and one was a rock star. They were always goofy and over the top, similar to SNL characters.”

Andrea Farrar, whose kids attend Medicine Lodge Grade School, said that Cunningham’s characters brought a lot of joy to the students last year when the pandemic hit.

“When COVID shut our school down last year, Mr. Cunningham would do morning announcements and dress up like different characters each morning. He did his best making the most fun out of a bad situation,” Farrar said.

Ryan and his wife Karen serve spaghetti with maple syrup. (Courtesy Karen Cunningham)

Farrar said that her children look forward to Cunningham’s Christmas antics every year.

“The kids are always so excited to see Buddy the Elf each December,” Farrar said. “The joy he brings to the grade school is infectious. Buddy the Elf brings so much laughter to the students and parents as they drive by for morning drop-off before school. My kids love ‘jumping’ the crosswalk with Buddy the Elf as he waves at all the parents.”

It has always been about the kids for Cunningham, and both Farrar and Lonker said that Medicine Lodge Grade School is lucky to have a principal like Cunningham.

“Medicine Lodge Grade School is blessed to have a principal that is so passionate about his job. The kids in the grade school absolutely love Mr. Cunningham and all the fun he brings to the school! He is the most understanding boss and always puts family first. We are so fortunate to have a principal who loves all of the kids as much as he does!” Farrar said.

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