LIMA — The U.S. Marine Corps Reserve’s presence in Lima began in 1953 when the 72nd Special Infantry Company was activated at the Navy-Marine Corps Reserve Center on Liberty Street. Along with their military presence, the Marines brought the annual Christmas Toys for Tots campaign, which began in Los Angeles five years earlier.
In 1960, the 72nd Special Infantry Company was supplanted by the 6th Field Ordnance Maintenance Company, with headquarters at the Lima tank plant on Buckeye Road.
Fittingly, the new unit brought a different collection strategy to Toys for Tots. In addition to the colorful toy receptacles placed in shopping areas, the Marines rolled out the armor.
“Lima’s Marine Corps Reserve unit will present a new twist to the age old visit of Santa Claus when they bring the jolly old elf to town Saturday in a tank,” the Lima News reported Nov. 28, 1965. The tank, followed by fire engines, city police and sheriff units, a Jeep and two Marine trucks with trailers for toys, visited the Public Square, Northland Plaza, Westgate and the new American Mall to kick off the Toys for Tots campaign.
The “Santa Train,” with annual modifications, would begin the Lima Toys for Tots campaign until the early 1970s. In 1966, the train collected 2,573 toys during visits to Lima’s major shopping areas. The 1967 train featured pulchritude perched atop the tank in place of Santa Claus. Although Santa Claus did “especially dispatch the tank,” according to a Dec. 8, 1967, article in The Lima News, Miss Lima Marine rode in the spot of honor that year.
Santa returned to the tank in 1968. The tank itself was decked out like an enormous, well-armed gift, a gift tag hanging off the gun muzzle. Lima’s Ronald McDonald and Larry Rich as Jo Jo the Clown accompanied Santa on the 1969 tank train, which by now included annual stops at the Lima Mall.
The Marines had many allies in their efforts. The Lima News explained the process Dec. 16, 1962.
“According to Capt. John Schroeder (commanding officer of the reserve unit), pickups are made each day … and delivered to the Marine Reserve Center where they are sorted carefully. Toys needing repairs are transported to the Lima State Hospital where patients renovated broken dolls, chairs, wheels and toys of every size and description. Money for supplies is provided by the Elks Lodge. Renewed toys are once again picked up by the Marines and then delivered to the Salvation Army Citadel.
“Under the direction of Major Francis Spellman, Salvation Army Workers catalog toys into several age groups via a card system. Parents registered with the Salvation Army are invited to the citadel where workers select toys adaptable to each boy or girl.”
Lima State Hospital patients, and later those at Oakwood Forensic Center, as well as inmates of Lima’s correctional facilities, played an integral part in the campaign.
“’Oh, how I wish I could see the little girl who gets this doll’ is the comment most often expressed by the women as they finish dressing the dolls, according to Mrs. (Caroline) Rigali,” The Lima News wrote Dec. 12, 1965. Mrs. Rigali was head of the women’s occupational therapy department at the Lima State Hospital and annually posed for a photo with Marines and a sea of dolls the women had repaired.
Meanwhile, the women at the Lima Senior Citizens Center lent their sewing talents to clothing the dolls, making hundreds of tiny dresses. At the other end of the age spectrum, students at area high schools also pitched in, holding dances to support the campaign and donating shop class time to repair donated toys.
In 1966, a Toys for Tots dance was held at the Lima Teen Center with music by the Illusions, while the Lima Adjusters Association held a similar event at the Delphos Country Club with music by the Notables.
The Lima Elks Club, as it had from the first local campaign, held an annual dance to collect toys. Another early contributor, the Ohio Theater, continued with a day of movies and entertainment for children who donated a toy to enter. Welles Department Store, Pangles Markets and Stippich Hardware were among the many retail concerns donating toys. Industry chipped in with plants, such as Westinghouse and Warner & Swasey, holding benefits. In 1973, the Ice Haven Skating Club gave an ice skating exhibition at PanRec Arena to aid Toys for Tots.
Good news for Lima’s economy in 1977 was nearly bad news for the campaign.
“Reactivation of the Lima Army Modification Center to build XM1 tanks will mean deactivation of the local U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Unit effective June 30,” the News reported June 2, 1977. “… The Marine Corps had been tenants of the Buckeye Road facility, but with expansion of the plant, the Army will need all available space to build tanks, so the Marine Corps will be forced to leave. …Loss of the reserve unit may mean an end to the annual Toys for Tots campaign.”
Toys for Tots, however, would survive. The Lima News wrote Nov. 4, 1977 that the Marine Corps League, a group which promotes the Marine Corps, would pick up the slack with help from Marine recruiters and other volunteers.
By the 1990s, the Lima Noon Optimist Club in conjunction with the Salvation Army took the lead role in the campaign, which was still under the auspices of the Marine Corps.
Marine Staff Sgt. Chris Mulet explained the long allure of the Toys for Tots campaign to the Noon Optimists in a Nov. 18, 2004, talk at the club.
“I’ve been in the Marines for 15 years,” Mulet said. “During that time I’ve been around the world three times, and I’ve seen the atrocities people do to one another. But a campaign like Toys for Tots brings out the best we can all be.”