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Former Marine Harry Smith started working for the Toys for Tots program in 1947 and hasn't stopped since. Seen here outside his home in Sparks, Smith has already collected several bins full of items for Toys for Tots 2014.
Former Marine Harry Smith started working for the Toys for Tots program in 1947 and hasn't stopped since. Seen here outside his home in Sparks, Smith has already collected several bins full of items for Toys for Tots 2014. (Photo by Pat van den Beemt)

When a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve started collecting used toys for needy children in 1947, he used Marine manpower to transform old toys into something that would light up a child's eyes on Christmas morning.

Harry Smith was one of many young Marines to help with that makeover. The newly enlisted Smith painted bright stripes on sleds and gave a bike or a wagon a new coat of paint.

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That first collection of toys was so successful that the Marine Corps adopted Toys for Tots in 1948 and expanded it throughout the United States.

And while the Toys for Tots campaign has seen some changes since then — it stopped accepting used toys in 1980 — there is one constant. Smith, now 85 and living in Sparks, has never stopped working for the charity. Last year, he helped collect and distribute about 8,000 toys in Maryland.

"There's a lot of running around but it keeps me busy," Smith said after dropping off a Toys for Tots white cardboard collection box at Graul's Market in Hereford. "I put the boxes out in October and as soon as they're full, I empty them so people can fill them up again," he said.

He uses his minivan with Toys for Tots logo on the side to shuttle toys to his home until they're ready to be given out.

"Harry is a great guy who's always smiling," said Ken Bullen, Graul's manager. "Toys for Tots is a great program and Harry shops here, so he's always checking on the box. I'll see it filled, and the next I know, it's empty again."

Smith has a total of 22 boxes out there, in places such as Hereford middle and high schools, Hereford Physical Therapy, Graul's May Chapel and Ruxton stores and Little Gym in Hunt Valley.

Smith said he goes through the toys at the Sparks home he shares with his daughter, Meghan Parker, and her family.

"I don't have time to play with the toys, but I look through them to make sure everything's OK," he said. The collection is aimed at children up to age 16 and includes everything from dolls and stuffed animals to sports equipment.

The most unusual toy he found is one that never made its way to a tot. It was a dartboard and a set of shiny, sharp darts.

One of the biggest contributors to Smith's Toys for Tots efforts is Bethany United Methodist Church in Ellicott City. Smith and his wife, Cindy, attended that church when they lived nearby. Although Smith, now a widower, lives in Sparks, he still travels to Bethany church to go to weekly services.

"He is very proud of Toys for Tots and he's very proud of being a Marine," said Jean Carnavos, administrative assistant at the church. She said Smith has boxes in several locations at the church and advertises in the weekly bulletin.

After he has collected from all 22 boxes, Smith delivers many toys to a Marine Corps warehouse in Baltimore.

He also personally distributes toys to Kennedy Krieger Institute, Family Tree in Baltimore and Catholic Charities.

Smith, who grew up in Glen Burnie, enlisted in the Marines in 1947. He fought in the Korean War and moved back to Maryland in 1952. He worked at G.W. King printing company and then bought the business in the early 1980s. Smith owned it until he retired in 1997.

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While he is mostly a one-man operation, he is looking for help when it comes time to deliver the thousands of toys he hopes to collect this year.

"I think about stopping this, but then I know I got to help the kids," Smith said. "It would be nice to have some help, though."

To learn more about assisting Smith, call him at 410-472-3246.

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