Sub for Santa buoyed Depression-era families

Fairy Ryan, left, with one of the many families that benefited from Sub for Santa.

The headline read “Sub for Santa – Adopt a Christmas Thrill” and was followed by a picture of a young girl about 7 years old. She was wearing a ragged dress and scuffed shoes and was holding a squirming puppy.

The story made it clear she wasn’t going to have Christmas. Her parents couldn’t afford it.

That was 1938, when American was in a deep Depression. Her family, like many others in “shanty town,” needed to be adopted through the Sub for Santa program. The mission of Sub for Santa was to provide as many needy families as possible with warm clothing, shoes, blankets, food and other essentials.

In an oral history for the Museum of Western Colorado, Mildred Hart Shaw, a former Daily Sentinel reporter and editorial page editor, said the program had been her brainchild. She said she got the idea in Seattle from a similar program she became familiar with while attending the University of Washington.

Shaw said she didn’t have time or know her way around Mesa County well enough to pull this off, so she recruited Fairy Ryan, who was the Mesa County nurse. Capt. Carl of the Salvation Army joined Shaw and Ryan in this endeavor.

Shaw recalled that Ryan was a “fantastic person” who saw to it that all schoolchildren in Mesa County were immunized. Mesa County was the only county in the United States with complete immunity, thanks to Ryan. She could get reluctant parents to agree to immunizations.

Shaw approached Walter Walker, publisher of the Sentinel, and even though the Sentinel was sponsoring Al Look’s Soupeaters Christmas program for the needy, he agreed to support the Sub for Santa program, too.

Ryan had a great deal of contact with needy families because she visited all the schools in Mesa County. Once when she visited the school in Gateway, she found a boy who had nothing to eat. She supplied the food, and the teacher cooked it for him. She then began a similar program at other schools in Mesa County.

Money was tight, so instead of cash, people gave Ryan eggs and produce, which she distributed to families without food.

She soon was supplying names and descriptions of families to the Sentinel, and once a week the paper would run a list of families for adoption. Once a family had been adopted, the Sentinel would give the sponsoring family the names, ages and number of family members.

Ryan also asked adopting families to do more than supply necessities. She wanted them to go out and check on their adoptees two or three times a week and to become involved with them to make sure their needs were being met.

The first year of Sub for Santa, 347 people were helped, including 62 families with 234 children.

The Sentinel described the living conditions of these families as shacks made of tar paper, with bits of packing boxes, cardboard boxes and pieces of lumber salvaged from the river. There were some 50 families living down south and west of the river.

Shaw said one memorable gift was from a farmer who called Ryan to donate seven chickens. Ryan phoned Shaw, telling her she would be by to pick her up, and off they went to fetch the chickens. To their surprise, they left the farm with live chickens in a threadbare gunnysack in the backseat of the car. In no time, the thrashing chickens had destroyed the bag and escaped.

What a sight that must have been: two women driving down the road with chickens loose in the car, a couple of which ended up on the front dashboard. They dropped the chickens off with Captain Carl at the Salvation Army the minute they got to town.

When Ryan retired from her position as Mesa County nurse in the early 1940s, a committee took over the program, and eventually the Salvation Army organized the annual event.

The Palisade Chamber of Commerce awarded Ryan the annual service award Palisade Outstanding Citizen in 1961, and in 1965 the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce gave her the Citizen of the Year award. She died in May 1967.

Fairy was a perfect name for this woman — she was a “Christmas Fairy” who, along with Mildred Hart Shaw and Captain Carl, made Christmas possible for large numbers of children in Mesa County for many years.

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Kathy Jordan is retired from The Daily Sentinel. She is involved in many local preservation efforts and is on the board of directors for Colorado Preservation Inc.

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