Missouri man helps neighbors with food, toys for the needy

Posted: Tuesday, December 24, 2002

MONETT, Mo. -- His workshop is in rural southwest Missouri. His sleigh is a horse trailer pulled by a 1994 Chevrolet pickup. And he likes wearing denim jeans and 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.

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. He also will be handing out toys for his 24th year.

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

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, 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.

Now he asks families to stop by his shop to pick up 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.

''I'm country, and I'm poor,'' said Thornton, who was raised in neighboring 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.''

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.''

For Thornton, Christmas just isn't Christmas without a good meal. He got the idea to branch out into serving meals 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 Dec. 25.

''If they can't get here and they want something to eat, we'll deliver it to them,'' said Thornton, who also dons a Santa suit and visits schools and nursing homes.

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

''We really wanted to help him out, and we know they'll go to families who need them,'' she said.

Many residents said the only thing bigger than Thornton's heart is his desire to help those in need. Thornton works independently and therefore concentrates on families within a 30-mile radius of Monett.

''It hurts him to have to turn anyone away,'' said Mable Garoutte, who is engaged to Thornton. ''But he has to cut it off somewhere. He can only do so much.''

Garoutte is a true Santa's helper. She and Thornton hunt for toys at area garage sales. They load them into Thornton's horse trailer and take them to his shop -- H&L Pawn and Tack Shop -- where they are cleaned and repaired.

A number of area businesses and restaurants also give him donations. The 1,500 workers at EFCO Corp. make collecting toys part of their annual festivities.

''We all love him,'' said Melissa Beckwith, chief financial officer at EFCO. ''It's a pretty big deal for us to help him.''

This time of year, it's also not unusual for Thornton to arrive at his home or shop and find boxes of toys, clothes or other items with nothing more than a note saying, ''I hope you can use this.''

''The other day, I got here and there was a turkey in a cage by the door,'' Thornton said.

It will be added to the Christmas dinner menu.

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