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Cheer Fund boosts spirits; toys, baskets distributed since 1957

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Fireman Jerry Long opens one of the boxes of clothing, toys and treats to be distributed in December 1958 to Bartholomew County youngsters from the Fireman-Police Cheer Fund.
Fireman Jerry Long opens one of the boxes of clothing, toys and treats to be distributed in December 1958 to Bartholomew County youngsters from the Fireman-Police Cheer Fund. SUBMITTED PHOTO

While assisting the Columbus Firemen’s Cheer Fund in preparation for Saturday’s annual distribution of toys and food baskets, Pat Whittington reflected on her first experience with Bartholomew County’s oldest charity.

It was Christmas morning 1957, a time when many citizens in East Columbus burned coal for heat and could afford little more than beans and cornbread for supper.

While a number of older siblings had moved out, Whittington was one of a half-dozen family members still residing in her parents’ home on Cleveland Street.

It was an exceptionally difficult holiday season that year. The father, who installed pipes for Dunlap’s Construction, had been laid off from his job.

Cheer Fund distribution

Distribution will begin at 7 a.m. Saturday. Volunteer deliverers should pick up their baskets from the warehouse inside the Doug Otto United Way Center on 13th Street.

Drivers will be asked to use the following route to accommodate the anticipated line of traffic that will lead to the warehouse:

Start at 10th and Michigan Street.

North on Michigan to 13th Street.

13th Street east to Cottage Avenue.

South on Cottage Avenue to 12th Street.

West on 12th Street to the warehouse entrance.

When Whittington woke up that Christmas morning, gifts were both few and simple. Young Pat received two toys that cost a little more than a quarter apiece in 1957: a paddle ball and a Pixie Pick Up Sticks game. The little girl also received two pieces of fruit.

While the 5-year-old was too young to feel disappointment, Whittington remembered her father seemed noticeably depressed.

As Whittington began playing with her inexpensive toys, there was a knock on the door. The girl followed her mother to the front entrance and peeked out from behind her skirt to see who had come to visit them that Christmas morning.

“Two firemen with the biggest smocks I’ve ever seen in my life came in with a large box,” Whittington recalled. “These guys were dressed so nice in navy-blue uniforms. And it seemed at that age their box was so huge that it almost touched the roof of the house.”

After the family discovered what was inside, the girl’s mother began to cry. Before them was a treasure trove of Christmas gifts — a full ham, house slippers, and for tiny Pat, her first and only Barbie.

While she loved the doll, Whittington was most delighted with the new coats, especially the gray one with her name on it.

“That was something I never had,” the now-60-year-old Whittington recalled. “We all had hand-me-downs. They sure made us happy that day. It was a memory I’ll never forget.”

In contrast to Whittington, Jon Lortz, 46, grew up in a more prosperous environment. As an adult, the Columbus man owned a business and worked a profitable second job as a professional musician. His Budweiser-sponsored music tours took him to high-profile entertainment centers such as Florida and southern California.

Lortz was doing so well that he purchased a beautiful new home for his wife and two children, Dylan and Brooklyn, just eight months before fate pulled the rug out from under his feet in 2005.

“I found out my bad back pain was the result of a degenerative spinal disc disease,” Lortz said. “The doctors put me on some very heavy pain medication. It got so bad I could barely get out of bed due to pain and medication.”

For that reason, work was not an option. As a result, his business folded. The tours stopped. The family lost its new house, and his marriage eventually disintegrated. In addition, 3-year-old Brooklyn had ongoing and expensive medical needs.

As Lortz struggled to cope with overwhelming financial, physical and emotional troubles, in December of that year the Columbus Fireman’s Cheer Fund came through for him.

“When you’ve fallen on hard times, there’s no worse feeling a father can have than not being able to give his kids a decent Christmas,” Lortz said. “It makes you feel like a failure.”

Among the gifts brought to the Lortz home were a variety of art supplies for 4-year-old Dylan, who had displayed both a talent and interest in drawing and painting. The cheer box also had a variety of dolls that Brooklyn adored immediately.

“You almost do cry because your kids are getting

something,” Lortz said.

His long-term rehabilitation required him to seek assistance from the Cheer Fund for a few more years. But once he regained his mobility, Lortz began using his talents to repay the organization that had brought such happiness to his children.

In addition to the money raised by the concert, the Eagles donated $200 of their own to the charity. Lortz said a local business, Guitar City, provided both the sound equipment and an audio professional for the concert at no cost.

“You know when a good buddy does you a favor and loans you money, but you can’t pay him back for years?” Lortz asked. “Then, suddenly, you feel like you’ve won the lottery, so you want to give more to your buddy than he gave you? Well, the Cheer Fund has been that good buddy for me.”

Whittington feels the same way. Since starting her own family decades ago, she has been a regular Cheer Fund volunteer.

“I’ve been marking, stuffing and sorting for quite some time,” Whittington said. “I also work with a retirement group that donates new toys each year.”

While assisting other philanthropic organizations in the Columbus area, Whittington said the Cheer Fund will always be special to her for the happiness it brought her family 55 years ago.

Bartholomew County residents this year were eligible to sign up during November for assistance through the Columbus Fireman’s Cheer Fund and through First Call For Help — United Way 211, which monitors the applications to prevent duplication of services and for eligibility requirements.

At least 1,190 children will be served. In addition, more than 215 food baskets will be handed out Saturday to the elderly and disabled in the community.

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