Sailor Dan would be proud. So would “Santa Joe” Mannino. Each played a role in the history of The World-Herald's Goodfellows fund, a charity that has its roots in the late 1880s, when the newspaper sponsored Christmas parties for disadvantaged kids.
In a very real way, both also had a hand in this week's Goodfellows milestone: Donations to the fund — those compiled since official record-keeping began in 1945 — topped the $10 million mark, said Joel Long, Goodfellows' executive director.
Sailor Dan, host of a 1950s kiddie show on what then was WOW-TV, encouraged his young fans to donate toys for the fund's annual drive.
And each year for 16 years, Mannino sent in the first check for the annual Goodfellows campaign at holiday time. On his own, he also collected gifts all year, wrapped them and delivered them to young and elderly Omahans, earning his nickname.
People gave to Goodfellows in his name for many years after he died in 1986.
Thousands of generous Midlanders have helped their needy neighbors through Goodfellows donations. The fund has survived through two world wars, the Great Depression, numerous recessions, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and 9/11.
“It is truly exciting to see Goodfellows pass the $10 million mark and think of the thousands of lives that have been touched,” Long said. “Over time, donors have said that they remember Goodfellows helping their family out when they were a child, and now they want to give back. We also have many donors who say it has always been a family tradition to support Goodfellows.”
In earlier days, Goodfellows had a Free Clothes and Shoe Fund and a Free Milk Fund. In the 1970s it partnered with a research center to purchase hearing aids for deaf children and offered free eye exams to school kids through Creighton University.
It also operated a toy program for many years, until the Salvation Army took it over in 1974 and has long given holiday meal vouchers to needy families.
Since 1993 the fund's main focus has been providing one-time emergency aid to those who need a boost, filling a niche that few agencies addressed.
“People would show up downstairs looking for some help,” said Mary McGrath, a retired World-Herald reporter who served on the Goodfellows board of directors in the 1990s, part of the time as its president.
She remembered one man who had found an apartment but had no money to buy a mattress. People in the newsroom took up a collection so he could buy one.
That incident and several others prompted the Goodfellows board to look at what aid was available across the area and offer something different: money to tide people over when they hit a rough patch, she said.
The new mission became easier when Omahan Charles Lakin matched contributions up to $250,000 in 1995 and 1996. Lakin, who worked his way up from dishwasher to multimillionaire real-estate investor, said he chose Goodfellows because every penny raised goes toward helping people in the community, not administrative costs. He donated the entire amount both years.
“That gave us some flexibility we had not had,” McGrath said.
Now the fund will embark on its second $10 million.
“I wish it wasn't that way, but there will always be a need for Goodfellows. And as long as there is a need, I feel confident that readers of The World-Herald will open their hearts and checkbooks to reach out and help those around us who need that towline,” Long said.
THE HISTORY OF GOODFELLOWS
December 1889: The World-Herald gives its first Christmas party for children. Santa makes an appearance, and 1,200 kids enjoy a turkey dinner.
1894: Drought and crop failure contribute to widespread unemployment, and The World-Herald asks readers to “Throw Out the Towline” to help. Several World-Herald staff members solicit donations because there's no organized charity to address the need. The paper opens a relief bureau on Farnam Street. That was the beginning of what eventually would become Goodfellows.
Early 1900s: The “Towline” sends processed meats, canned goods and medical supplies to help refugees fleeing from Cuban starvation, oppression and concentration camps.
Early 1900s: The “Towline” provides a turkey dinner for the First Nebraska Regiment in the Philippines.
1910: Using the name “Goodfellows” for the first time, The World-Herald sponsors its first Christmas drive, helping 800 children and families. A single staffer coordinates the drive.
1918: Goodfellows continues to grow, giving toys to 2,500 children and grocery baskets to 530 families.
1933: Goodfellows becomes the sponsor of the regional Golden Gloves boxing tournament. The sponsorship lasts until 1963.
Dec. 25, 1944: Goodfellows incorporates as The World-Herald Goodfellows Charities Inc. Formal record-keeping begins.
1947: Goodfellows begins installing playground equipment in the Omaha school district. By 1951, 104 public and private schools in Omaha and Council Bluffs had the equipment and more was being installed.
1950s: A series of Goodfellows bowling tournaments begins to raise funds for the charity.
1970s: Goodfellows partners with the Daniel and Cornelia Cary Research Center to purchase hearing aids for deaf children and starts offering free eye examinations to school children through Creighton University.
1993: Goodfellows changes its focus to providing one-time emergency aid to people who have suffered setbacks and need a boost.
1996 and 1997: Omaha philanthropist Charles Lakin donates $250,000 in matching funds to the annual campaign.
2013: Goodfellows donations reach the $10 million milestone.