The story of the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund began in December 1949.

Matthew I. Barron was Portland’s assistant welfare director and knew many local families that were struggling and many local kids who were not likely to get any Christmas presents.

Robert Bruce Beith was editor of the Portland Evening Express and the author of a news column, and he wanted to help.

The two friends decided that Beith would ask newspaper readers for donations and Barron would use the donations to buy toys for needy children. The Evening Express launched the effort on Dec. 9, 1949, with a headline that read, “What to do about it: 1,000 face Santa-less Christmas.”

Beith wrote his column using a pen name – Bruce Roberts – which was his middle name followed by his first name. Their idea worked, even better than expected, and that first year raised close to $4,000 and provided gifts to more than 1,500 kids. Barron and Beith kept at it year after year, and the name Bruce Roberts eventually became synonymous with the annual toy fund.

Eventually the Express would close and its sister paper, the Portland Press Herald, would keep the tradition going. The full name of the fund is now “The Portland Press Herald Toy Fund in the Spirit of Bruce Roberts,” reflecting both the history and the staying power of the 68-year-old idea.

The fund now raises enough money to provide toys to thousands of children each year in Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Lincoln and Knox counties.

The fund has outlived both Barron and Beith, who said near the end of his life that he never expected so many readers would “keep the contributions rolling in with their only reward being the vision of children’s happy faces when they opened their presents, and their parents’ happiness in knowing that someone out there cares.”