Santa's helper Man makes sure children have toys, food for Chri

Saturday, December 21, 2002

MONETT, Mo. -- His workshop is in rural southwest Missouri.

His sleigh is a horse trailer pulled by a 1994 Chevrolet pickup. And he prefers to wear denim jeans and jacket, topped off by a cowboy hat.

But Linn Thornton is Santa in the eyes of many Monett residents.

Thornton, 68, makes it his business to see that every child in Barry County has a toy and a full belly on Christmas.

This marks the 24th year he has been distributing toys, he expects to help more than 200 families. About 600 people are expected to feast on turkey, ham, fish, elk, antelope and all the trimmings at the town's American Legion hall on Christmas Day.

"I'm country, and I'm poor," Thornton said. "I was raised in Stone County. We didn't have running water or electricity. Our bathroom was an old outhouse. We didn't have much, but we always managed to get by."

Thornton continues to be a man of modest means. He was forced to retire from loading trucks in 1999. After delivering gifts to 111 families that Christmas Eve, he stopped to wash his pickup and slipped on ice and broke his leg.

"I'm running on a leg that's a half-inch shorter, but we're still doing Christmas," Thornton said with a jolly laugh.

Tasty opossum

But now he asks families stop by his shop to pickup their bags filled with dolls, stuffed animals and games. Thornton tries to give three toys, an item of clothing and a candy cane for each child.

"He's quite a guy here in our town," Sue Updike said. "I moved to Monett with my two kids on Dec. 3, 1993. We didn't know anyone, and we didn't have much money. So we went to the American Legion for dinner."

Updike said her children still laugh about eating opossum for their Christmas meal.

"It was really pretty good," Updike acknowledged.

She and new husband Gary organized a toy drive this year to help Thornton. They collected two truck loads -- including a Nintendo game -- and $75.

"We know they'll go to families who need them," she said.

Gift giving to struggling families started in 1978 when Thornton helped his barber, who cut off two fingers while remodeling his house.

"You can't be a barber with just one hand, and he had a boy and girl and wife to support," Thornton said. "So I got some things together for them. It's been an adventure ever since."

Christmas isn't Christmas without a good meal, Thornton says. He got the idea to branch out after finishing his holiday dinner at his sister's house.

"We had so much food left over. There was no way we were ever going to eat it," he said. "I told her that we should give it to people who needed it."

He had 42 people come to eat that first year. Thornton will serve his 18th Christmas dinner on Wednesday.

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