Remembering The Newspaper Christmas Fund

Monday, December 23, 2013 - by John Shearer
Someone recently brought to my attention the fact that the local Forgotten Child Fund has either recently turned 50 years old or will soon.


A look online showed discrepancies in exactly when it started.

But it is known that it began when Chattanooga Police Department patrolman Johnny Wright and another officer answered a call sometime in the 1960s and realized a child or some children were not going to have any Christmas presents.


With the aid of a last-minute collection from members at Highland Park Baptist Church, he eventually helped get the fund started.


Thinking of the Forgotten Child Fund started me reminiscing about having to write a number of stories back in the mid-1980s for the Chattanooga News-Free Press Christmas Fund, which benefited the Forgotten Child Fund and other needy charities.


Back in those days, I was a young news reporter/feature writer at the News-Free Press. And usually, young reporters were given such duties as typing obituaries and writing articles about the United Way fund and – yes – the paper’s Christmas Fund.


Almost every day over the several weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I had to type a story about a client or clients who benefited from one of the agencies. It was somewhat laborious work putting the articles together, but I did gain quite a bit of insight into the fact that a lot of people were struggling in Chattanooga.


And I felt at least a little gratified to be able to help bring attention to the concerns  -- even though I was getting paid to do it.


I also learned a basic lesson about journalism taught by editor Lee Anderson – that the heart strings of readers are pulled on a lot more if you do a detailed story about one starving person than an overview about 10,000 who are hungry.


Since the Times and Free Press merged, the combined paper has continued the Times’ worthwhile Neediest Cases Fund, which benefits clients of what is now the Partnership for Families, Adults and Children.


But the old News-Free Press Christmas Fund used to benefit the Salvation Army, Team Evaluation Center, the Santa For All Seasons Fund, Bethel Bible Village, and, of course, the Chattanooga Fire and Police Departments’ Forgotten Child Fund. It also funded Christmas parties for the T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital patients and the Rivermont Elementary Special Education Center.


I can still remember them all because I had to type them at the end of each story I wrote.


A little bit of competition seemed to exist between the Times and Free Press regarding who could raise the most money in their holiday fund drives. A few colleagues who probably did not read any of the stories would invariably ask me if we were ahead of the Times.


Unfortunately for me, I believe the Times raised more money during the one or two years I wrote the stories, and it was credited to the fact that the Times fund was older, and many people and families had donated to it for years.


Despite having to turn in a story regularly, I enjoyed getting to know some of the people involved with the various benefiting agencies. I remember interviewing Bethel executive director Ike Keay, who seemed to do a great job.


And, of course, I talked with longtime radio personality Earl Freudenberg for the Forgotten Child Fund, as well. He is certainly to be credited for his involvement from a public relations role, as the fund now helps thousands of children.


I also remember going over and meeting school patrol officers Jeanette Wilkerson and Peggie Bullard to help me construct my Forgotten Child Fund stories. Ms. Wilkerson was white and Ms. Bullard was black, but they seemed to be kindred spirits of sorts, at least when I talked with them.


They both had a lot of self-confidence, and probably were pioneering women in some ways. I also recall on one occasion that they were not afraid to talk to me about a story and make sure it reflected perfectly the ideals of the Forgotten Child Fund.


Meeting people like those two has always enriched my experience of being a journalist, even if they did not always tell me I had written the perfect story.


A number of people also wanted to help with the benefiting agencies of the News-Free Press Christmas Fund in some ways, and pictures of their volunteer efforts would often run with the stories.


I went and looked back at some articles from the 1985 series I did and saw a picture of some Baylor students who were aiding the Tennessee Department of Human Services’ Santa For All Seasons Fund for foster children.


Pictured next to Channel 9 newscaster Bob Johnson were Baylor students John Clay, Cal James, and Chad Walldorf. Mr. Clay would play football at Alabama, Mr. James would become a businessman in Alabama and was the nephew of former Alabama Gov. Fob James, and Mr. Walldorf later helped start the Sticky Fingers restaurant chain.


It was fun in ways typing the Christmas Fund stories, and I remember I would end my stories the two years I coordinated it with a fictitious account about being visited by Santa Claus, who would tell me of the importance of having people donate to the fund.


Of course, doing the stories made me realize Santa Claus already had plenty of helpers in Chattanooga, from the ones who volunteered for the agencies to those who donated to the fund.

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