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Martindale's spirit of giving lives on

Harry Martindale, right, and Bobby Atkins deliver gifts to young Gabriel Cruz.

The late Harry Martindale ’27 is fondly remembered at Lehigh as a generous benefactor who, with his wife, Elizabeth, made gifts that left their mark all over campus.

But many Southern California families will remember Martindale in a very different way: as an elf.

For the last several years of his life, Martindale—who died at age 99 in December 2004 in his Newport Beach, Calif., home—often could be seen in early December strolling the aisles of Orange County toy stores, pausing to test out the latest crazes before tossing them into a shopping cart.

At his side was Bobby Atkins, owner of the Atkins Livery car and limousine service and founder of Bobby’s North Pole Livery. Together, they made scores of children’s holiday dreams come true. And as Atkins makes his appointed rounds again this holiday season, Martindale’s spirit will be with him.

This holiday tale begins in the mid-1990s. Atkins had launched his North Pole Livery, sifting through stacks of “Dear Santa” letters at the Costa Mesa, Calif., post office and choosing several particularly compelling cases—latchkey kids, broken homes, desperate circumstances—on which to bestow gifts.

He’d gotten financial support from some of his livery clients, and by then, he’d already been driving for several years for Martindale and his wife, Elizabeth Fairchild Martindale. Her family had owned Fairchild Publications, a diverse newspaper, book and magazine company from which he had retired as a vice president in 1970.

Elizabeth died in June 1997; Harry was devastated. And as that year wore on, Atkins realized that Harry, who already had been chipping in to help fund the North Pole Livery’s gifts, needed something to distract him, to inject some joy back into his life. Martindale still liked going to the local horse-racing tracks or out to dinner with friends, and he had a robust philanthropic life through the Fairchild Martindale Foundation that he and his wife had started decades earlier. But he needed something new and immediate on which to focus.

Elfhood beckoned.

“The consummate gentleman”

Martindale, right, and Atkins sift through letters to Santa. Every letter Martindale read ended up in the "take" pile.

From the get-go, Atkins says, “Harry used to love to go to the post office and look through the Santa letters … He never put any letters down in the not-to-take stack. Every one he read he said, ‘This is one we’re going to take.’”

The gifts ran the gamut: Disneyland tickets, video games, Christmas trees, every size and shape and kind of toy imaginable. And sometimes the gifts were just as much for the parents as for the children: in one case, a used car for a desperate single mom; in another, a month’s rent; in another, furniture for a family who’d lost everything in a fire.

Martindale loved the actual shopping, Atkins recalls. “He and I could be there two hours and spend $5,000 and be out the door”—and that’s including the time Harry took to stop and play with some of the toys.

But nothing compared to loading up Atkins’ limo with toys and making the rounds, handing those packages of cheer to beaming children.

Bicycles, lined up awaiting delivery. Martindale loved giving bicycles to children.

“He loved to give kids bicycles, so I’d always have at least four or five bicycles… I’d pack up the limousine and we’d have bicycles hanging out the back,” Atkins says.

John Rasmussen, a Corona, Calif., certified public accountant who took his father’s place keeping Martindale’s books in the 1990s, says that “getting out there and actually delivering the gifts was a big deal for him, he had a lot of fun with it,” perhaps due to “the fact that he never had any kids himself.”

The Rev. Gary Collins, Martindale’s pastor at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, says few who knew him were surprised to see Martindale jump into such a project with so much gusto.

“He was such a gentleman, the consummate gentleman,” Collins recalls. “We don’t see such people anymore. He was so courtly with everyone. I guess when you give a lot of big gifts in the form of checks and stocks, it’s one thing. But when you go buy a lot of toys and go out and give them to kids and see their faces, that’s something else. He just enjoyed it so much.”

“Dickens is right”

Little Gabriel Cruz gets a new bicycle for Christmas from Martindale and Atkins.

Esther Asafu-Adjaye, the nurse who cared for Martindale and his wife for the final 17 years of their lives, says she actually grows a little sad at Christmas time now because she misses the energy and goodwill Martindale brought at this time of year.

“He loved Christmas. He always said he wanted to help people who couldn’t afford it. He just did it out of the goodness of his heart. He loved to help people,” she recalls. “He loved to go give the gifts to the kids himself—their facial expressions kept him going the whole day.”

Nephew Wight Martindale Jr. ’60 of Gladwyne, Pa., an author who has taught at Lehigh, says his uncle’s elfdom was part of his “normal penchant for giving things away. He had decided with his wife at some point, ‘We should spend the rest of our lives giving much of what we have away.’ ”

Lehigh benefited enormously from that decision. Examples of Harry and Elizabeth Fairchild Martindale’s largesse include the E.W. Fairchild Chair in American Studies, named in memory of Mrs. Martindale's father; the E.W. Fairchild Visiting Writer; the E.W. Fairchild Fellowship in American Literature; and the E.W. Fairchild Library Fund. In 1980, in the College of Business and Economics, they funded the Fairchild-Martindale Center for the Study of Private Enterprise and spearheaded the establishment of the Wight Martindale Sr. Memorial Scholarship. And in 1987, they established the Paul J. Franz Jr. Chair in University Administration in honor of longtime vice president of development Paul Franz, who died in 2002.

Wight Martindale Jr. says his uncle and Atkins were a perfect match—a rich, childless, generous elderly man and a middle-aged working man who felt compelled to help kids enjoy a better childhood than the rocky one he’d endured.

“Doing something directly was something he liked, and Bobby was a highly energetic soul … He kept Harry running for a long, long time,” he says. “Dickens is right: this is not a fanciful emotion that people have at Christmas time … That was kind of the way Harry decided to run his life. He decided to do good things while he could, and he did them for a very long time.”

Sometimes there wasn’t even a kid involved.

Posted on Thursday, December 20, 2007

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