A long history of lending a hand
BY MARCI LAEHR TENUTA, Published in The Journal Times
RACINE -- Tex Reynolds Toys For Tots is well known in Racine County for giving out refurbished toys during the holiday season to needy children.
However, the organization has a long history of giving in many other ways. Racine Good Fellers, the Toys For Tots benefactor organization, has also given out food baskets to the elderly and needy, YMCA and YWCA memberships to deserving children, checks to servicemen in World War II and clothing and cash for necessities.
The need for such a civic-minded organization rose in Racine almost immediately after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, according to Vern Hoffman, the former editor of The Journal Times and a past president of Good Fellers.
"The 1930s became known as the desperate decade,'' Hoffman said. "Virtually everyone knew people who were in desperate straits, so their hearts went out, and a bit of their cash, or help, too. Good Fellers was started to provide food baskets to needy families and toys for their tots at Christmas time.''
According to Hoffman and Don Karkow, the current president of Toys For Tots, the gift-giving movement began with the Racine Boy Scouts in 1929 under the direction of Scout Commissioner Art Gruhl. For several years the scouts distributed food and toys during the holiday season on their own.
Meanwhile, another community effort was taking shape in Racine - the start of Good Fellers.
"In 1933 a bunch of civic minded people got together and had lunch and decided to help the community,'' Karkow said. That group, which included a popular columnist for The Journal Times, named Tex Reynolds, also wanted to provide food baskets and toys to poor families at Christmas.
In 1934 the scout program needed help with funding, and according
to Hoffman, Gruhl came to Reynolds for help. He asked Reynolds to publicize the program's need for money in his newspaper column.
A community tradition was born that year, as Good Fellers became a fund-raising organization, with Toys for Tots as its main beneficiary.
Reynolds assumed the responsibilities of president of Good Fellers, with Henry Olson of the First National Bank as treasurer, and Gruhl remained in charge of the toy distribution. With overwhelming support from the community, the program flourished.
Hoffman said the families receiving Christmas toys and food baskets reached the thousands, memberships to local youth clubs were handed out, volunteers began to refurbish old toys to give to children, Good Fellers bought new toys to give, the elderly received fruit cakes and candy, Good Fellers collaborated with other organizations to send Christmas checks to servicemen during World War II and continued to give cash and clothing to the needy.
At one point the organization also set up a lending library of toys where children whose parents couldn't afford to buy them, could "check out" toys if they promised to return them, unharmed, within a week.
The Racine community embraced the holiday tradition of Toys For Tots.
"Many people, ranging from school children to seniors, helped with the used toy collection and repairs,'' Hoffman said. "For years Leone Townsend coordinated the collection of dolls and doll clothing from many clubs and individuals. Women at Rainfair, a clothing manufacturer, contributed doll clothing they made. Olga Christensen, a resident of the Danish Old People's Home, made clothes for 50 dolls every year when she was in her 90s.''
Hoffman said more than 100 businesses set out cartons to collect non-perishable food items for holiday baskets, and a number of organizations contributed their own food baskets, including students from the four Racine high schools open at the time, Park, Horlick, Lutheran and St. Catherine's; children from the YMCA and YWCA; Boy Scouts, members of the Elks Club, St. Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army.
Fire stations also began acting as drop off sites for used toy donations.
Over the years, according to Hoffman, several toy workshops were set up in the city. The Boy Scout headquarters, a Horlick Corporation building on Northwestern Avenue then owned by Western Publishing, the Naval Reserve Training Center on Hamilton Street and the City Hall Annex on Center Street, all at one time served as work sites.
For more than 40 years Frank Seymour coordinated the senior citizen group that made repairs to the old toys.
"There was an ungodly number of people who contributed to this,'' Hoffman said. "They all did it for one reason: to help their fellow man.''
But helping was also fun when it involved Toys for Tots.
Annual fund-raising traditions rose up to help support Good Fellers and its gift-giving program. One such event occurred every December 1 when The Journal Times would publish a special Good Fellers newspaper, Hoffman said.
"Racine manufacturing firms' presidents and other executives, business men, politicians and others hawked the papers on the streets for donations to the Good Fellers,'' he said.
An annual sports dinner, beginning in 1935, was held at Dania Hall each December. Famous sports stars from the local, state, national and sometimes even international level would come to speak to a crowd of 400 or more, Hoffman said.
When World War II ended along with the depression, Good Fellers and its Toys for Tots program began to change. In 1959, Gruhl retired from the scouts and gave up his toy distribution responsibilities, and the program began to suffer.
With Reynolds' retirement from The Journal Times in 1969, the program took its hardest hit.
The gift-giving program ended, along with the annual sports dinner and other fund-raising efforts. The Good Fellers newspaper event had ceased following the war.
Reynolds remained president of Good Fellers until he died in 1972, Hoffman said. For the years in-between, Good Fellers still contributed cash and clothing to the needy, however the program had lost some of its earlier zest.
Hoffman took over as president of the organization until he retired in 1975. It was during his first year of leading Good Fellers that Jean Mandli decided to resurrect Toys for Tots.
In 1973, Mandli, who worked for the Center for Community Concerns and later became its director, created a new,
formally organized program with a slate of officers and directors - something the organization had never had before.
She also added Reynolds' name to the program's title, with the permission of his widow.
That year Townsend, who had run the program's doll collection in prior years, became president of Tex Reynolds Toys for Tots. She served for two years and was then succeeded by Helen Foley, Jake Erdmann, and the husband and wife team, Les and Florence Veltus.
Karkow, who had been serving on the Good Fellers board since 1977, took over as president of Toys for Tots in 1982, and has run the program ever since.
Today, the workshop is located in the basement of the City Hall Annex, 800 Center St., where more than 35 volunteers work year-round to make old, donated toys new again and then distribute them to thousands of Racine County's needy children in time for Christmas.
In 1997, Toys for Tots began coordinating their toy distribution with the Corporate Volunteer Council of Racine's Giving Tree program. Each year, the council, which is made up of more than 30 Racine companies, asks employees to buy new gifts for children.
Toys for Tots and the Giving Tree share the names and ages of eligible children. Separate packages from each gift-giving organization are assigned to each child, and the presents are then distributed together to families.