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A room full of toys-2
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Retired Fire Captain Bill O’Malley talks about the tradition of the Saugus Fire Department Christmas Toy Drive

  Editor’s Note: For this week, we decided to catch up with Retired Saugus Fire Department Capt. Bill O’Malley on what could be his last run as organizer of the annual Saugus Fire Department Christmas Toy Drive. O’Malley, a longtime Saugus resident, spent 36 years at the Fire Department before retiring in 2004. But he continues working with other retired Saugus firefighters and active members he calls “Santa’s Elves” in helping to spread a little Christmas cheer to some needy families this time of year. He and his wife Carole have been married for 63 years. And he credits her for being an asset to the holiday mission he’s been running for more than three decades. “Nothing gets done without Carole,” he says. O’Malley is modest about his role in this Saugus holiday tradition, which he organized more than three decades ago. He insisted on buying the coffee for this week’s interview. Here are some highlights from our conversation at a local donut shop.


  Q: The Annual Saugus Fire Department Toy Drive has become quite a tradition in Saugus over the years. When did it actually begin and how did it begin?

  A: It started when Parker Brothers went out of business, sometime in the early 1990s. They called up and said they were closing in Salem, Mass., and they had some extra toys to give away. And they asked whether the Fire Department could do anything with them. I said, “Of course we can.” I figured we could find some families in town who could use some toys. It was a small amount, but it was enough that we could handle it – maybe a pickup truck full. So, that’s how we started. And it just grew year after year from then on.

  Q: Did the Fire Department have a toy drive back when Parker Brothers closed, which would have been around 1991?

  A: No. Not back then. But we took the toys and tried to find some families that might need a little help. We called around to the schools, organizations and churches to see if they would give us names of the people they thought needed help or they knew needed help. So, after getting the names, I called some people up, and I said, “I understand you need some help this year.” And they asked who told me that, and I told them it was confidential. And they either said they did or didn’t need help.

  It was all confidential. Santa Claus knows everything. It spread by word of mouth. Somebody would call saying they know a family that needs help, and it would go from there. But we try to keep it all confidential so nobody gets embarrassed or says anything about it. The different organizations, the churches and the School Department would help make our “Santa’s List.”

  Q: So, what happened after the first year?

  A: We decided to keep it going. I just put a little announcement in the papers that the Saugus Fire Department Toy Drive was alive and well and that we’d be collecting for families in need again. So between the businesses and residences and word of mouth, it grew and it continues to grow. We have “drop boxes” for presents in Town Hall, at the Police Department and in both Fire Stations. Some businesses do put boxes out for us.

  If I were to ask every business in town if they could put a box out for us, they would probably do it. But there’s not enough room at the Fire Department to accommodate all of the presents we’d get. The people of Saugus are so generous, we’ve now got a lot more gifts than people to give them to.

  Q: How long will this toy drive last?

  A: Probably up to Dec. 15. We have to leave ourselves enough time to sort out the presents by boy/girl and age group; then we bag them all up.

  Q: Please tell me about your wife, Carole, and the role she plays as the key organizer behind the scenes.

  A: What can I say? Behind every successful man there’s a successful woman who is organized and makes things work … most of the stuff we do doesn’t get done without my wife. Carole is very organized and keeps things together. She knows exactly who the families are who are going to be getting the toys and their ages.

  Q: Sounds like she’s like Mrs. Claus is to Santa Claus.

  A: Absolutely. Without her guidance and organization, it doesn’t get done properly. She keeps track of the families we’re going to be delivering to. We usually have 55 to 60 people we help out.

  So, we put the gifts in black contractor bags so kids can’t see them when the toys are delivered to the families. Three or four days before they get delivered, my wife has a list, and she writes it down on a piece of paper and staples it to each black bag. It’s so well done and organized after all of these years.

  Q: Besides your wife, you get a lot of help from other folks to make this work.

  A: We’ve got the greatest group of volunteers – not just firefighters – we have civilians who help out, too. And we have organizations and businesses that help out. I don’t want to name them so I don’t forget anybody. At the end of the toy drive, we’ll get a letter out to recognize the people who helped out this year. But I’d have to say that retired Saugus Firefighter Don Babin and his wife Judy have been a huge help. Don’s been with me from the beginning.

  Q: When you look back on all these years that the Saugus Fire Department Toy Drive has helped out families in need, what are your best memories?

  A: One of the biggest ones is how generous the people in Saugus are for donations at Christmastime. Then there’s the reaction you get from the people you are helping out. It’s overwhelming when you go to make deliveries and see people with tears in their eyes. It’s a “thank you.” They’re showing gratitude – and it really makes you feel like you’ve done something that helped somebody.

  Q: Any special memories that really stand out?

  A: Yes. One year we got a check from somebody who wanted to thank us. The person said she was one of the children in a family we helped out. The check was “pay back.” The woman said, “Thank you for what you’ve done for our family over the years. You put smiles on our faces.”

  On another occasion, I saw a grown man crying with joy, he was so grateful for how we helped his family. He worked with a daughter of one of the firefighters. When I went over to his house to deliver the gifts, he gave me a bear hug. He was a big guy, over six feet tall, so when he gave me that bear hug, my feet were off the ground. He was the happiest guy in the world that I was helping him out.

  Q: How did you make out last week from the Saugus Lions Club Third Annual Roaring Toy Drive down at the Saugus Senior Center?

  A: We got two pickup truckloads of toys last Saturday. It was a pretty successful day. But we’re just getting started.

  Q: Are you able to get enough toys for everybody on the list?

  A: Oh yeah – more than the families in need. But we always save enough toys, just in case we have a fire in some family’s home, where everything gets destroyed. We have a reserve that stays with us. One year there was a house fire in a surrounding town and we donated some toys to help them out. And we also have some charities we help out with the toys we receive.

  Q: Sounds like you get a healthy surplus of toys.

  A: Yes. We get enough where we are able to give two or three gifts to each child – at least one good present. We could probably give out 20 toys per family, but Santa doesn’t bring 20 toys. And we give out gift cards for the older children who don’t play with Legos anymore.

  Q: You’ve been doing this for over 30 years. How much longer will you be involved?

  A: You’ve got to be realistic about it. At some point, you want to be able to pass the torch on to somebody younger who can keep the tradition going. I made an announcement last year at the Local 1003 union meeting that I would be retiring. It’s been fun doing it. But I want to hand it off to somebody who can take it over.

  Right now Firefighter Nick Landry is showing an interest in being that guy, so I’m going to walk him through it, step by step. He’s a Saugus guy (2016 Saugus High graduate), and his grandfather is Domenic Cataldo, a retired lieutenant in the Saugus Fire Department. Nick has only been on the department for a few years, so he’s going to be around for a while. And he’s going to do a great job.

  Q: Anything else that you would like to share?

  A: If anybody knows a family that’s in need, please call me (781-233-7274). We do call everybody back.

  The Fire Department will be hosting its annual toy drive through Dec. 15. Anyone interested in donating may do so at the Hamilton Street or Essex Street Fire Stations. Various businesses will have donation bins available as well. The Fire Department welcomes any new unwrapped toys, gift certificates or cash donations. Also, if anyone knows of a family in need or has questions, please call Ret. Capt. Bill O’Malley at 781-233-7274.

“Santa’s Elves”-2
“Santa’s Elves” came from the Saugus Fire Department last Saturday (Nov. 26) to pick up the first of two pickup truckloads of gifts gathered by the Saugus Lions Club at its Third Annual Roaring Toy Drive held in the parking lot at the Saugus Senior Center. Pictured from left to right are retired Saugus Firefighter Don Babin, Saugus Fire Captain Tom Nolan and Retired Saugus Fire Captain Bill O’Malley. The Annual Saugus Fire Department Christmas Toy Drive – which O’Malley initiated more than 30 years ago – will continue through Dec. 15. (Saugus Advocate photo by Mark E. Vogler)

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