Santa and Abe Lincoln impersonator Bob Kochka dies at 91

| 28 Nov 2018 | 12:53

WEST MILFORD – Impersonating Santa Claus and Abraham Lincoln came easy to Robert (Bob) J. Kochka.
Year after year, he appeared at local events representing those personalities. Well known in his home town, he lived a life of kindness to others and always honored his family, his country and his church.
Kochka passed away at age 91 at his home on Nov. 19 with his wife Mary at his side.
They were inseparable since their marriage 70 years earlier at St. Joseph Church.
The church, visible from the 14 Sawmill Road home is in the Echo Lake community and it is a big part of their lives.
Mary accompanied her husband when he was on his impersonation gigs, and participated with him dressed as Mrs. Santa and as Mary Todd Lincoln when he brought his portrayals to life at the West Milford Museum, Long Pond Iron Works Museum and the West Milford Autumn Lights Festival.
Bob was born to George Kochka and Ethel Tintle Kochka on Aug. 30, 1927 in a house on Macopin Road (formerly known as Echo Lake Road) that Cecil B. DeMille lived in when he was a boy.
The Tintle parents, as Hollywood Director Cecil B. DeMille’s had done in earlier years, rented the Smith family house (as it was known) for a time.
It was later owned as part of John F. Mathews’ Estate, and today it is the home of Bob and Shirley Bishop,
In 1966, the Kochkas built their own home at 14 Sawmill Road next door to Bob’s mother’s family homestead at 26 Sawmill Road, built in 1845.
The five children born to Bob and Mary Gobosack Kochka are Mary Ann Morrison (husband Ross), Robert Kochka, Lois Kochka, Peggy Ann Kochka, and Catherine Kochka Thomas. There are 10 grandchildren in the family and 12 great grandchildren.
Bob served in the Merchant Marines and in the United Stated Army.
He was in the Army during the occupation of Japan following World War II, and spoke of the warmth and kindness that he found in the suffering Japanese people he met there and who were grateful that the war was over.
He said the people were unaware of the political scene and the horrors their leaders caused and carried out.
At St. Joseph Church, Bob was an altar boy from his earliest years up to age 17.
He served the church in roles as needed throughout his life.
He dug the graves in the church cemetery from 1948 to 1968 when a backhoe was finally used for that back-breaking work.
Bob also dug some of the graves at Cedar Heights cemetery by hand. Sometimes to get the job done he worked at night using a lantern for light, and said he always felt close to God when he did that work.
He pulled the rope to ring the church bell before services and at special times including weddings and funerals.
He said he loved the Echo Lake Community and had many stories to tell of his life there.
He remembered walking to Baxter’s Corner (now the intersection of Echo Lake and Macopin Roads) to get things for his family at the post office and general store.
Among the items he brought back to the family homestead was kerosene for the lamps that lit the house prior to installation of electricity.
Bob said his most precious memories were of his eight years as a student at Echo Lake School where he helped his teachers as he carried water for classroom use from a hand-dug well and brought in coal from a coal bin for the stoves that heated the school.
He said he remembered when the second room was added to the original one room school that was located where the former St. Joseph School was built and when indoor plumbing was finally added to Echo Lake School to replace outhouses.
His teacher for the first four of his eight grades at the school was Verina Mathews Genader (mother of the author of this article). His upper grade teacher there was Josephine Marion.
“We learned a lot there,” he said. “We listened as the teachers taught the higher grades. By the time we graduated from eighth grade we were well schooled.”
Individual classes at Echo Lake School were often small. When Bob graduated in 1941 he had two other classmates – Frances Weller and Walter Bator. Mary’s graduation class a bit later totaled five students. With her were Helen Mooney, Irene White, Connie Struble and Richard Crum.
Bob credited Mrs. Genader and the plays that she prepared with the students for their parents and friends in the Echo Lake Community at the little rural school house for getting him interested in acting. He often spoke of those happy days and how they built his self confidence and enthusiasm to do the Santa and Lincoln presentations that he is remembered for today.
When Tonya Cubby’s long-time dream of creating a West Milford Museum started to come about Bob and Mary Kochka supported the effort as original Heritage Committee members and furnished an out of the past room there with furniture and memorabilia from long ago Tintle generations.
The couple was awarded the Mary Byrnes Haase Lifetime Volunteer Award at a local governing board meeting.
Visitation was scheduled at the Morrison Funeral Home, Bartholdi Avenue in Butler on Nov. 25. The funeral was scheduled at 11 a.m. on Nov. 26 at St. Joseph Church with burial in the family plot in the church cemetery.