The Portland Press Herald Toy Fund began in December 1949, when Matthew I. Barron was Portland’s assistant welfare director. Barron knew that many local parents were struggling financially and that many of their children wouldn’t be getting Christmas presents.

Barron reached out to friend, Robert Bruce Beith, an editor at the former Portland Evening Express who wrote a news column under the pen name Bruce Roberts. The two men decided that Beith would ask his readers for donations and Barron would use the money to buy toys for children in need. The Evening Express, a forerunner of the Press Herald, launched the effort on Dec. 9, 1949, under the headline, “What to do about it: 1,000 face Santa-less Christmas.”

Their idea worked even better than expected. They raised nearly $4,000 the first year and provided gifts to more than 1,500 kids. Barron and Beith kept at it year after year, and the name Bruce Roberts became synonymous with the annual toy fund.

Today, the full name of the program is “The Portland Press Herald Toy Fund in the Spirit of Bruce Roberts.” A registered nonprofit, it provides gifts to thousands of children each year in Cumberland, York, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Androscoggin 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.”