LIMA — He was an unlikely Santa Claus.
At 6 foot, 3 inches tall and around 230 pounds, Capt. Anthony J. Palonis Jr. was more linebacker than Jolly Old Elf. In a Nov. 24, 1958, article the Lima News described Palonis as “a powerfully built man” who “at 36 weighs some 25 pounds more than when he was the youngest Master Gunnery Sergeant in Marine Corps history.” Palonis achieved the rank at 21, three years to the day after enlisting in the Marines.
During World War II, as a member of the elite raider battalion of Col. Merritt A. Edson, he was wounded by shrapnel on Guadalcanal. Later, on New Georgia Island, he dragged a severely wounded comrade out of an exposed area. According to a Reader’s Digest article recounted in The Lima News, a Navy doctor recalled that “when I told him Parker (the wounded man) was beyond hope, his face contorted. He wheeled to go back to the front and his legs gave way. That was the first I knew he had been wounded.”
In the mid-1950s, Palonis, a native of West Hanover, Mass., and veteran of World War II and Korea, was inspector-instructor of the Marine Corps Reserve unit in Lima. He had a chest full of medals, including the Purple Heart and Silver Star.
So, when he told The Lima News in 1958, “I want toys for the kids of Lima,” the kids of Lima got toys.
On Jan. 7, 1959, Palonis told the News more than 8,000 toys had been collected and distributed to 1,993 children during the 1958 Toys for Tots campaign. “The Toys for Tots drive has again proved that the people of Lima will do everything they can to make sure the needy children here have a happier Christmas.”
Through the Toys for Tots program, Palonis and many other Marines before and after him have been making sure all the kids of Lima have toys at Christmas. Serving as helpers has been a diverse group of community organizations — notably the Salvation Army — and service clubs. Residents of Lima from school children to patients in state mental institutions and prison inmates also have pitched in.
Marine Corps Reserve Major Bill Hendricks founded Toys for Tots in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1947, according to the group’s web site. The first toy collected was a homemade doll. In 1948, the Marine Corps officially adopted Toys for Tots, and expanded it into a nationwide community action project.
The 72nd Special Infantry Company, Marine Corps Reserves, was activated in Lima on March 31, 1953, with headquarters at the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Training Center, 500 Liberty St. Lima’s Toys for Tots program was born that Christmas season.
On Nov. 19, 1953, the Lima News wrote that a “campaign to collect Christmas toys for Lima’s ‘less fortunate’ children will be conducted this year by the Lima Marine Corps Reserve Unit and the Lima Kiwanis Club. …The Salvation Army will handle distribution of the toys, using lists provided by local welfare agencies.”
“All work done by the Marine reservists will be on their own time,” Capt. Harold Coffman, inspector-instructor of the Lima unit in 1953, told the News.
In that first year, collection stations were located at downtown department stores like Gregg’s, the Leader and J.C. Penney. Sohio gas stations and the Albers Super Market at Market and Metcalf streets also were drop-off sites.
In a column in the Nov. 27, 1953, edition of The Lima News, the “Lima Beane” opined: “Perhaps to some, the idea of giving toys to tots may seem a bit out of place, as clothes or other ‘practical’ items would be needed. But if you’ve ever seen a child’s eyes light up at the sight of a cuddly doll or teddy bear you know your work will not be in vain.”
The idea apparently didn’t seem a bit out of place to Lima residents, who jumped in wholeheartedly.
The Ohio Theatre on Dec. 15, 1953, announced a special show for children — five color cartoons and one big Western — with the price of admission a new or used toy. The Toys for Tots show would become an annual staple of the season. In 1954, WLOK-TV personality Sam Fitzsimmons, a ventriloquist, appeared with his pal Mickey McGee.
As the 1955 drive began, the Lima Beane again lent support. “In a world, which at times seems to be falling apart at the seams, it behooves all of us to stop, take stock of our many blessings, then share them with others.”
More and more Lima groups joined the Marines, Kiwanis, Salvation Army and Ohio Theatre in the campaign. The Arthur Murray teachers held a Toys for Tots party, the Elks Club sponsored an annual dance, Central Junior High School shop students repaired used toys, neighborhood parties were organized to collect toys.
On Jan. 1, 1956, Coffman told the News 8,700 toys had been contributed in 1955.
“We’ve all joined together in this annual program because we feel it is the best way we know to show our interest in our communities and our desire to be a valuable addition to community life,” Capt. Floyd M. McCurdy, commanding officer of the Lima Marine Corps Reserve unit, said Dec. 7, 1956.
In 1958, an unusual group began helping in the campaign. Palonis told the News on June 15, 1958, that “toys were being rounded up and would be repaired in time for Christmas by patients at the Lima State Hospital.”
In an interview with the News on Nov. 23, 1958, Palonis said: “There are patients at the hospital who have done nothing but lie on their backs and stare at the ceiling for two and three years, but when handed one of these toys to be repaired it seems to break a barrier and they show the utmost of interest in repairing them — it has turned into a great therapy treatment!”
Next: Marines bring in the heavy weapons.