Byline: Ellie Oleson
The world was mired in the Great Depression in 1938, when the Gazette Santa was born.
The New England Hurricane of 1938 had killed an estimated 600 and destroyed millions of homes, and the Dust Bowl ended the dreams of Midwestern farmers and led to food shortages throughout the world. Terrorist acts of madman Adolf Hitler, Time magazine's 1938 "Man of the Year,'' were leading to a second world war.
Orphanages across the country were packed with children who had lost their parents or been abandoned there by desperate families who could not afford to feed their children.
In Worcester, Walter F. Hopkins, promotions manager for the Worcester Telegram and The Evening Gazette, suggested that a "Gazette Santa'' gift program be started for needy children.
The newspaper's co-owners, Harry C. Stoddard and George F. Booth, agreed.
Retired English teacher Barbara Louis Hopkins Willard, 83, of Rochester, New York, said she sometimes joined her father, Walter Hopkins, on his Santa Claus rounds.
"Daddy was a caring person in so many ways. He was interested in and concerned for the orphan kids,'' she said.
Mr. Hopkins' friend, Baptist minister Rev. Willard Smith, dressed as Santa and handed out gifts to the children at area orphanages and homes for the poor.
"Daddy wanted the children to understand that this is a caring world, that someone cared about them,'' Mrs. Willard said.
Mrs. Willard said her father would get staff members at the orphanages to find out what the children wanted and then would buy these items for them. They wanted toys, candy, a watch, clothing or other special item.
"Workers would casually ask the kids what they would want if they could have anything, then keep a list they passed to my father. He would see to it the children got what they asked for, if it was at all possible.''
She recalled seeing children hug and kiss a warm sweater or pair of shoes they so desperately had wanted.
Santa also always handed out a book to each child, which the Telegram & Gazette Santa still does today.
"Sometimes, Daddy would bring me and my sister Ann,'' she said. "At times, our mother would go, but they didn't want it to be viewed as a spectacle. Mom did her contributions in other areas.''
Her mother, Cleo Talbott Hopkins, founded a library in the Chaffins section of Holden, and, with Mr. Hopkins, supported putting book shelves and books in each orphanage and at the Sterling Health Camp for underprivileged children.