Man who gave out teddy bears understands school alert and police response

OTSGEO, Mich. — Ken Cronkhite didn't know giving away teddy bears would cause any problems, but he says that now he understands.

The teddy bear thing began with Cronkhite's elderly father, who has been collecting teddy bears for over 50 years. He keeps them in a barn adjacent to their home, and there’s hundreds of them: Christmas bears, polar bears, even Winnie the Pooh.

“He just started collecting bears one day,” said Cronkhite smiling during an interview at the barn. “The next thing you know every time he came home from a sale somewhere he always had a bear with him.”

But now it’s time for them to go, Cronkhite said. His 87-year-old father James, who’s suffering from dementia, recently told him and his siblings that he no longer wants them. So, they decided to give them away.

Cronkhite said last week his brother gave 150 of them away to group in Kalamazoo that first responders give to children. Cronkhite himself tried donating them to the American Cancer Society. However they told him that they had to be brand new. Monday morning, after shopping at a local Meijer superstore, he and one of his son's gave a teddy bear away to a mother and her child in the parking lot. They gave them the biggest smiles in return.

“Everybody came up and said ‘Hey are they free?’ I was like ‘yeah,’ said Cronkhite who had given away 40 that morning. “I  was just handing them out and everybody seemed to be happy. So we decided ‘Hey, anytime we see a parent walking with a kid, we’d just pull up and say ‘Hey do you want a bear.’ Most of them took ‘em. It was just a couple that weren’t very happy with it.”

A few people alerted the Otsego school district and police, Cronkhite said. As soon as he got home, he received a telephone message saying there was a “heavy set male in a silver SUV handing out teddy bears" and for parents to beware. Cronkhite, 54, immediately called the superintendent. Unbeknownst to him, his teenage son who heard the message at school, already met with school official.

“I called him and said ‘Hey you know that was me and this was my intentions. I didn’t mean anything ill," said Cronkhite recalling the conversation. “I’m sorry to the people in Otsego that got mad about it. I was trying to do something nice.”

Cronkhite called the police right after the superintendent and repeated the same thing. They came to his house and interviewed him in the driveway.

“I explained to him everything,” said Cronkhite. “He looked at the bears. He said ‘Alright I'll go talk to the school. We can wrap this up.’ I told him I wouldn’t go out handing out anymore bears.”

Cronkhite, who was once a chef in Chicago, said news spread quickly on social media. His kids in Ohio even called him to see what was going on. There were rumors going around, he said, that the teddy bears contained drugs and syringes. He said that was not true.

“It was something I never thought of,” said Cronkhite about the rumors. “But I can see, as a concerned parent, some people might mind-race to these weird crazy thoughts. They’re just trying to be protective.”

Cronkite is a father with five kids of his own. He said he understands why the school district reacted in the way that they did. This world can be a crazy place, he admits. But he wants others to know that good people still exist.

“My motivation was my dad collected these all his life and I wanted them to go somewhere where they weren't going to end up in a garbage pit or thrown out,” said Cronkhite. “When I saw the look on the little girl's face in the Meijer parking lot, it just made her so happy. I thought 'wow, if that’s all it took I’d like to see every kid smile like that.'”




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