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For the 50th year, the Christmas spirit of F. Ruth Moore soars in South L.A.

Ruth Moore Christmas Party in South L.A.
“This is their party,” says long-time volunteer Maude Johnson, middle, of the students she greets with high-fives at the 50th annual Ruth Moore Christmas party.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Imagine making a commitment to do something big and then doing it every year for decades without fail. Not sometimes. Not on odd years. Every year — including the rough ones.

In 1965, F. Ruth Moore looked around South L.A. and saw a community torn by poverty, joblessness, despair.

It was right after the Watts riots, in the midst of a drug epidemic. She saw elderly neighbors raising their children and their children’s children because of the chaos that drugs had wrought.

No child, Moore believed, should go without Christmas, no matter the circumstances at home.

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She decided to throw an annual party for South L.A.'s neediest children and get everyone she knew to pitch in.

F. Ruth Moore
F. Ruth Moore decided to throw an annual Christmas party for needy South L.A. children in 1965; she died in 1994 but her family has continued the tradition.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Now think of years flipping by on a calendar, the way they do in old movies.

This week, about 800 children from four local elementary schools attended the 50th consecutive F. Ruth Moore Annual Christmas Party.

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They got high-fives as they arrived at the Fremont High School auditorium in Florence. They dug right into the bag lunches waiting on their seats.

They clapped and cheered for singers and dancers and Mayseo the Magician. They squealed at the first sight of Santa Claus and left with stockings and toys that so transfixed them that they walked in zigzags, bumping into each other.

Baby dolls, squishy teddy bears, shiny red firetrucks, chess sets — the bounty was very much due to Moore, even though she died in 1994.

She had a heart attack at 63. She hadn’t made a plan for the party’s survival.

No matter. Those who knew her knew what she would have them do. They say they try to live by her example.

F. stood for Floyd, by the way, which was Moore’s actual first name. Some people called her Mimi and some called her Mrs. Ruth. Even her daughter Michelle Moore Sanders, who took the helm after her mother’s death, doesn’t remember where the Floyd came from.

What everyone does remember about Moore is what she told people when she met them: “Give me three minutes of your time and I will be with you for the rest of your life.”

She meant it, they said. The proof’s in the party.

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She asked you to help and you did it. She wasn’t a woman to whom you said no.

It should be noted that this party isn’t one of those sweat-free soirees with event planners, big corporate donations, catered food and a Santa rented by the hour.

It is now and always has been very much grass-roots and hands-on: Roll up your sleeves, beg friends for toys, drive the truck, slap some mayo on the sandwich bread.

That first year, friends gathered to stuff stockings in Moore’s backyard on East 82nd Street in Florence.

Kids receive their toys
“Santa” Al McLaughlin waves to children as they receive their toys at the 50th annual F. Ruth Moore Christmas party.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

The next year more came, crowding her kitchen to make sandwiches.

And they kept coming, year after year. Some of today’s volunteers were born into it.

“If you met her and you said hello, she had you forever,” Alice McLaughlin-Breaux, 64, said during this year’s party on Monday. “I’ve been at this for 40 years, since my children were 2 and 4.”

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By McLaughlin-Breaux’s side was her son, Al, 42, and her daughter, Alice, 44, who now lives in Denver.

The brother and sister said they had been put to work as little ones in Moore’s kitchen, learning to count by counting the lunch bags.

“We started on counting bags, and then I moved up to sandwich making, and I stayed there until I became an adult and got an apron for the stage. It took me 40 years to get an apron!”

“She’s almost grown now,” said her mother, laughing, also wearing one of the coveted red aprons with the name of the party embroidered in white cursive.

As for Al, he veered from counting to stockings and security. Somewhere along the way he also found himself roped into playing Santa.

It was in part because he was tall enough to fit the suit — first filled by Moore’s son Wayne. But Al McLaughlin is not Santa wide.

On Monday, in the back of one of the party’s rented trucks, he endured the yearly torture of putting on Spanx and having his mother and sister stuff them to jolliness with pillows.

He howled. He gasped for breath. He moaned. But whatever his mother said, he answered, “Yes, ma’am.” After all, just like the Moore kids, he was well-raised.

Michelle Moore Sanders was 13 when her mother came up with the Christmas party idea, but it was part of a continuum, she said.

Moore, a mother of four, worked as the community coordinator at the Watts Skills Center for vocational training, which fit the way that she lived.

She was always, Sanders said, “sending plates down the street,” feeding her elderly neighbors and her neighbors in trouble and anyone else whose need she noticed. She was helping neighbors on the day she died.

Friends remember how she fed everyone: piles of fried chicken, big pots of spaghetti and gumbo.

“This was our lives. This was how we grew up, helping others,” Sanders said. “I can’t remember a Sunday or a holiday when our home was not full of people.”

Sanders’ son — who chose a life of service as an L.A. County firefighter — said Mimi used to drive his grandfather crazy, forever interrupting plans to help a stranger. Still, his Pop Pop was devoted, said Emmit Sanders, now 43. Willie Prince Moore, who worked most of his career as a lineman for the Ford Motor Co., stood by his wife’s side, supporting her every move.

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Michelle Sanders, who is 63 and works in political financial reporting and record-keeping, said she hoped her son and his generation would one day keep the party going.

It’s a lot to ask, she knows — especially the fundraising. For the 50th party, she had big dreams: 5,000 children at the Shrine Auditorium.

But people are stressed, money is tight. Donations to the F. Ruth Moore Volunteer Service Organization were thin this year.

They did their best, as ever. “It’s always been a very personal effort,” Sanders said.

A happy gift recipient
About 800 children were fed lunch, entertained and given Christmas presents and stockings at the 50th annual Ruth Moore Christmas party.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

At the first party 50 years ago, almost all the children were black. Now most are Latino.

So much has changed, Sanders said. So much hasn’t.

Not the joy on the children’s faces. Not the need.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimescitybeat

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