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W. Hendricks; Founder of Toys for Tots Gift Program

TIMES STAFF WRITER

William L. (Bill) Hendricks, the retired Marine Corps colonel who was inspired by a homemade rag doll to found the Toys for Tots campaign that has brought a measure of Christmas festivity to millions of needy youngsters for 45 years, has died.

Hendricks, whose civilian career included the production of films, cartoons and TV commercials for Warner Bros., was 87 when he died Sunday. He was a longtime resident of Burbank.

It was a gentle suggestion from his wife in 1947, Hendricks recalled in a 1982 interview with The Times, that first produced what now is a nationwide outpouring of toys.

He was admiring a rag doll Diane Hendricks had crocheted out of yarn when she asked, “Wouldn’t it be nice to give this to some poor youngster who isn’t going to have a good Christmas?”

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He replied that he didn’t know of any agency that distributed toys.

“Why don’t you start one?” she said.

The following day he and a fellow officer made a proposal to their superiors for an annual Marine Corps-sponsored toy drive.

“Don’t fail,” was the only advice they got.

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With only two weeks left before Christmas that year, Hendricks--whose media friends launched a widespread publicity campaign--and a few dozen fellow Marines managed to round up about 5,000 used toys which they delivered to local children up until 11:30 p.m. Christmas Eve.

That first, relatively modest, effort evolved into a program that now involves thousands of men and women Leathernecks at scores of Marine reserve centers across the country. Last year, 7.8 million toys were distributed to almost that many children.

The program was not without some peril, Hendricks would recall in one of the dozens of speeches he made on behalf of Toys for Tots over the years.

“During our first campaign, Maj. (John) Hampton (another program pioneer) took some toys to a house with a quarantine sign hung outside. Being a big tough Marine he ignored the sign. Two weeks later he wound up in bed with chicken pox.”

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Such entertainment celebrities as John Wayne, Clark Gable and Janis Paige plugged the program on radio and TV.

Originally the Marines collected used toys but found that the reconditioning often took needed time away from the distribution itself, so now only new toys are sought.

When he wasn’t serving as a Marine reserve officer, Hendricks was writing theatrical reference works on how to promote films, directing the publicity and public relations units at Warners or heading the cartoon division there that produced such characters as Wile E. Coyote, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Sylvester and Tweety.

In 1960 he was given an honorary Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for producing the Marine Corps documentary “A Force in Readiness.”

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In 1969, in tribute to his work with Toys for Tots, he was given the Legion of Merit by Gen. Leonard F. Chapman Jr., then the Marine Corps commandant.

He and his wife, who died in 1988, were childless.

But they didn’t really feel that way, he said in 1982.

Those millions of grateful tots had by then become “our children.”

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A funeral service will be held Thursday at 10:30 a.m. at the Old North Church in Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Hollywood Hills.


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