POP' WENDT: NO CHILD SHOULD BE WITHOUT A TOY AT CHRISTMAS
By Randall Dullum, Jefferson County Daily Union news editor
Methodist minister and county juvenile probation officer Clarence Wendt, of Lake Mills - affectionately known as "Pop" - felt that no child should be without a toy at Christmas. So, in 1952, he began collecting and distributing toys to children in Jefferson County, which was the genesis of the annual Christmas Neighbors program. "In hiswork, he saw a lot of young people and children who were getting into trouble and maybe had family lives, home lives that were not very joyful at Christmas," said Helen Stowe, president of the Jefferson County Christmas Neighbors Board of Directors. "And he had a motto that every child should know what Christmas is."
In 1945, Wendt and his wife, Edith, had been living in Jefferson when they moved to Lake Mills, where they purchased the home known today as the Fargo Mansion Inn. According to Torn Boycks, co-owner of the Fargo Mansion Inn, the Wendts could not afford to keep up the spacious home on their own, so they rented it out as apartments. "They bought it in 1945 from Mattie Hoyt Fargo and turned it into an apartment building," Boycks said. "When Pop Wendt died in 1976, his wife moved to a smaller home in Lake Mills."
During their years living in the mansion, up until Pop's death, the Wendts took care of more than 80 foster children. "From the people I've talked to and the people who have visited us at the mansion, Pop was a very giving man,” Boycks said. "He was also heavily involved in the Boy Scouts."
Stowe, who was having children between 1951 and 1961, remembered that Pop Wendt threw parties at the Jefferson Municipal Building each Christmas, Easter and Halloween - and all other occasions during those years. "He would go begging for candy and he would find some entertainment, and the kids would all come to the basement of the municipal building," Stowe said. "And my kids still remember that - they always remember Pop Wendt. And everybody here in town that is maybe in their 50s will tell you they remember those parties."
STOWE HANDED REINS OF CHRISTMAS NEIGHBORS PROGRAM
When Pop died, it was feared his Christmas Neighbors program would die as well. Not to worry, however. For the past 30-plus years, the charitable program has endured and even flourished under the capable and selfless hands of Helen Stowe and countless other volunteers.
Stowe has been with Christmas Neighbors since 1969 when she started working for the former child welfare department, which since was incorporated into the Jefferson County Human Services Department. "Because I was in the social work field at the time, the county employees all helped Pop with this program because it had to do with children, and that was their thing," It then made sense to her that, when Wendt decided to retire and could no longer oversee Christmas Neighbors, he turn the program over to the child welfare department - then part of the social services unit - located in the Jefferson County Courthouse basement.
The child welfare department took over Wendt's program, maintaining it through a separate fund called the "Pop Wendt Fund" for many years. The program was moved from the courthouse to the basement of Countryside Home while the new human services facility in the woods along Annex Road was being built. Human services, however, didn't have the time or personnel to run Christmas Neighbors when the department was reorganized in the early 1980s, so the program continued privately for a brief time. It was set up in the lobby of the new building for one year.
"I got more involved in Christmas Neighbors because by then I was named to be the human services volunteer coordinator," Stowe said, noting that the program was relocated to the rented VFW hall at the time. As human services volunteer coordinator, Stowe worked with the former treasurer of Christmas Neighbors to increase its profile and recruit volunteers and donors for the now-privately-run charity program. Since then, Jefferson County Christmas Neighbors has boomed.
"We outgrew the VFW hall because people were so generous and brought in so many things," Stowe said. "Each year we seemed to be getting more things, but we also were getting more families." So finally, she said, the county allowed the program to be located for two days, free of charge, at the Activity Center in Jefferson County Fair Park. The program has remained there for the past 10 years.
But things weren't always so bright. In 1986, when the program was on shaky ground, the former treasurer of Christmas Neighbors wrote a letter to the newspaper informing the public that funds were so low that the program may have to be discontinued. "It was then that I said we need to do a letter-writing campaign to let people know," Stowe said. "It asked people for financial help so that we could keep the program going."
By then the program had had a good enough reputation that organizers had no problem taking in enough money from the public, she said. And ever since, Christmas Neighbors has conducted an annual fund-raising campaign through letters, radio spots and newspaper articles. "And people really do come forth," Stowe commented.
POP WENDT’S LEGACY LIVES ON IN CHRISTMAS NEIGHBORS
Because Jefferson County has seen a big increase in its Hispanic population, organizers again this year prepared the family request applications with English on one side and Spanish on the other, Stowe said. To break down the language barrier further, four adult Spanish interpreters served as volunteers this year, she added.
Christmas Neighbors, she said, receives referrals who area already screened to be low-income by Head-Start of Jefferson County, as well as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program at the county health department. “There are a lot of people who are not making enough to have extra money (for food and toys),” Stowe said. “And, needless to say, some of them do misuse their funds. That’s always been a problem.” She said she also sees a lot of single parents today seeking assistance.
Each year during the holidays, she and the other volunteers appeal to the public to help them stuff the stockings and fill dinner plates so that, in continuing Pop Wendt’s legacy, no child goes without at Christmas. In its first year, 1986, the toy program delivered toys to 159 families, or 388 children. Today, over 700 families and 1,900 children are served!
“My motto is that, irregardless of what the parents’ circumstances are, this program is for the children,” Stowe emphasized. “We have to know that the children will be taken care of because that was Pop Wendt’s wish. And I’m trying to carry that on as are my volunteers.”