On a winter’s day in 1944, Dan Vinson made a stop at the State Training School for Negro Boys in Boley, Oklahoma (integrated and renamed the Boley State School for Boys in 1965). All of the young men were at the training school because they had been previously incarcerated in McAlester, Oklahoma, which lies approximately 55 miles (88.5 km) southeast of the training school.
Just why Dan Vinson was there has been forgotten by history, but one thing is certain: his life would never be the same after this.
In his car that day, Dan had a half-filled box of candy bars. He reached inside and proceeded to hand its contents to some thirty-five boys. His generosity earned him the nickname “Uncle Dan.” Years later, he would recollect, “The way that little box of candy was received, I knew there was a place for someone to take care of boys like that.”
Dan William Vinson was born in Lonoke, Arkansas on February 27, 1884. Dan struggled quite a bit in his early days. He had worked as a circus troupe cook, as a translator and instructor at a Native American school, and readily admitted that he had gone broke several times. He finally found success with his invention of Vinsonite, his version of asphalt or blacktop for paving roads.
At the time of his stop at the State Training School, he was sixty years old and the father of five adult children, three boys and two girls. And while he insisted that he wasn’t a millionaire, Dan was said to be financially set for life.
But the reaction of those boys to the chocolate bars really struck a chord with Dan. As soon as he got home to Oklahoma City, he went about obtaining a load of broken toys, repairing them, and then handing them out to those in need.
Then Dan ran into a small problem. He still had more toys to give away, but no one to give them to. So, he called a local radio station, and they told of what Dan was attempting to do. Suddenly, the Vinsonite offices were inundated with phone calls. His staff had no clue what was going on, but after Dan explained, they were all now in the Santa Claus business.
Not that Dan looked like Santa. While he was tall, jovial, and had heavy white eyebrows, he lacked the classic bushy beard. Instead, he was nearly completely bald and clean-shaven.
The reality was that Dan Vinson had always had the reputation of being a generous man. In the early days of Vinsonite, he would traverse Oklahoma, distributing chewing gum and soft drinks to highway workers. Naturally, his underlying strategy was that the workers would go back to their bosses and tell them about Dan and his Vinsonite, which would lead to increased sales.
He was also fond of giving away frozen chickens and strawberries to friends and business relations. He explained, “A fellow in my business has to hand out something. Not that I’m so good, but I don’t go for whiskey. If I give a fellow a bottle, he drinks and then goes home.
“His wife asks, ‘where’d you get that liquor? I thought you weren’t going to drink anymore.’
“He says, ‘My old friend, Dan Vinson, gave it to me.’
“She says, ‘Well, he’s no friend of mine.’
“So I give them chickens and strawberries. The whole family has a good meal and they all like me.”
Uncle Dan’s giving of repaired toys, clothing, and candy would grow with each passing year. But he couldn’t do it alone. Friends and business acquaintances all chipped in. Not only did they provide many of the gifts, but they also helped with both the storage and distribution around the region. By the time the story first hit the news for Christmas of 1947, Dan Vinson’s gift-giving operation was filling up a lot of donated warehouse space around the city.
The following year, he had three storage buildings, each spanning approximately 3,500 square feet (325 square meters), brimming with gifts. In addition, his gift-giving had broadened its reach, sending 23,800 gifts to underprivileged children in Oklahoma, 21 additional states, and even reaching as far as Frankfurt, Germany.
The operation occupied two floors of the local Boy Scouts headquarters. Gift packaging took place on the second floor and toy repair, which was done by the scouts, happened on the third.
For the 1949 holiday season, Uncle Dan sought to expand the program. His goal was to give Christmas presents to 300,000 children. And just where would he find these children? In prison. Well, not exactly. The children weren’t in prison, but their fathers were.
65-year-old Vinson announced that all any inmate in the United States, Canada, or Mexico needed to do was to contact him and let him know that he was unable to give his kids gifts. Uncle Dan would make sure that Santa made a visit to those children.
Dan explained, “I have helped some 500 paroled persons and their main worry is usually about their children. Well, I decided to try to do something about it.”
He added, “There are thousands of children who have never opened a package of their own. These kids haven’t committed any crime.”
As Christmas approached, hundreds of letters poured into Uncle Dan’s office every single day.
A 13-year-old-boy, unsure where to send his letter, wrote the following to the Associated Press: “Coud you sind me the name and address of the man that sinds children peasants whos fathers or in prison. Sinsirley.”
A prisoner wrote, “I have been in prison two months, first time for me, and I have been thinking quite a lot about my children, how they would spend Christmas with no father for a Santa Claus. I sure will appreciate anything you send them as I know they will be very pleased.”
And then there was this letter from a death row inmate: “Would you play Santa Claus for my children? Please send the package directly to them… I won’t be around Christmas.” The writer was scheduled to be executed on December 19, 1949.
Uncle Dan made sure that every one of these requests was filled. Here is how it worked:
The gifts were packaged in a plain envelope and delivered to the prison. A tag in one corner bore the prisoner’s name. “And all he has to do is jerk off that tag and shoot the package on home with his name on it.” It really was that simple: the only thing the prisoner had to do was write his name on the package. In that way, the child would believe that the package was coming directly from Dad.
Gifts to impoverished families were handled similarly, although each package was marked with an Oklahoma City post office box number as a return address. Nothing on the package told of its true origin. But there was a note attached telling the postmaster that “If for any reason you are unable to find the addresses, remove this tag and give the package to any needy child.”
At this point, the program had grown so large that nearly all the toys were brand new. Many were donated, while others were made from military surplus materials. Keep in mind that World War II had recently ended, so the US Army and Air Force were able to donate large quantities of aluminum, plus the nylon and silk used for parachutes.
Dan estimated that at least 2,000 people across the state had volunteered their time to fashion gifts out of this donated material. Assistance came from scout groups, civic organizations, church groups, and just about anyone else who was interested in helping. In addition, some of the work was farmed out to individual homes, where neighbors would join together after dinner to make gifts.
Not only was the labor free, but so was the shipping. The US Air Force, trucking firms, and express shippers all provided their services free of charge.
An article in the December 18, 1949, edition of The Daily Oklahoman stated, “Uncle Dan’s gift collection and distribution system is so fantastic, so sprawling — and yet so quietly and efficiently run — that he makes the original St. Nick’s Christmas eve maneuvers seem as simple as sliding down the chimney.”
The gifts that each child received were simple things that had little monetary value but were chosen to bring joy to the recipient. The contents of each package varied, but could include some combination of balloons, water pistols, airplanes, buzzers, yo-yos, nylon scarves, hats, purses, dolls, and candy. Clearly, some of these toys were intended for girls, others for boys. Vinson also included a ruler with his motto printed on the back, “Let’s all share what we have today with the little kids that didn’t have enough yesterday.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the entire operation was that Uncle Dan did not want the spotlight to shine on him. He only agreed to interviews to promote the program, not to draw attention to himself. Credit for the work always went to all those involved. “Find those volunteers, and the people who give toys and the ones who make playthings from fabrics, metals and cardboard, all year ‘round. They’re the ones to get thanks and praise.” The following year, he told a reporter, “You have a lot of people sold on the idea of doing something for someone else.”
For Christmas of 1950, more than one million children received his gifts throughout all 48 of the United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Central and South America, Germany, and the Philippines.
That same year, the Dan Vinson Foundation was established to run the program. While his friends believed that Dan was spending a significant amount of his own money to fund the program, he would never admit to doing so. In addition, he refused cash donations.
Dan was offered, for free, warehouse space in an Oklahoma City automobile dealership. It was there, at 825 N. Broadway, in what is known today as the Hudson Essex motorcar building, that Dan Vinson’s Santa Claus Toy Shop was set up. The owner of the building explained, “Dan’s always around here with a doll or something, talking about what he is planning to do for kids. I’ve asked him several times if I could help him, but he would never take any money. That’s a new approach, and I was impressed. When the time came that I could help him with some space, I knew he’d make good use of it.”
In 1951, Dan planned to add even more children to his Christmas list. To do this, he planned to ask police departments across the nation to distribute the presents. His logic was that underprivileged children typically had a negative perception of police officers, while many policemen had a similar view of those children. With the officers handing out the gifts, he hoped to use the Christmas spirit to bridge their mistrust of one another. In the end, an estimated seven million toys were sent to over two million children.
But Uncle Dan wasn’t just focused on Christmas gifts. He also arranged to get much-needed supplies and equipment into poor country schools. He arranged for doctors and hospitals to provide medical treatment for those who could least afford it. When the town of Konawa was planning to build a new public library, Dan donated enough tile to cover the entire exterior of the building. He also donated two overhead heaters for a new American Legion building being constructed in Oklahoma City.
Yet Dan never lost focus of those who were incarcerated. By 1951, it was reported that he had helped some one thousand paroled men get back on their feet after their release. A bill that echoed a plan that Vinson had crafted to help parolees went before the state legislature that year, but, unfortunately, wasn’t approved.
Then, on Saturday, November 1, 1952, Dan Vinson made the shocking announcement that would not be sending out any gifts that year. He blamed it on two factors. The first was that the program had grown so large that it needed to be both streamlined and reorganized. And second, he felt that a national radio report had misrepresented what his charity did and was hurt by the negative publicity. (I was unable to determine exactly what was said that was so harmful.) But Uncle Dan did promise to start the program back up for Christmas 1953.
Dan had written letters to 84 prisons explaining that he would be unable to distribute gifts that year. He was soon besieged with letters from prison officials and prisoners, so he decided to restart the program. “I changed my mind and sat down and wrote another letter to all of them. All a convict has to do to get his children’s name on the list is to write to me. Any convict in any prison anywhere in the world who writes us can be sure we’ll take care of his kids.” He added that all one had to do was address his request to “Uncle Dan Vinson, Oklahoma City, Okla. The post office here knows where to find me.”
But that was basically the last gasp of his Christmas gift-giving project. On October 6, 1954, he announced that he would not be giving away any toys that year. But he did mention, “However, letters already have come in, so I am going to send materials to prison chaplains and to police departments. They can carry on from there if they wish.”
The reality was that Uncle Dan was now 70 years old and he now had an even bigger dream that he was working on. It all started during the summer of 1950, when he hosted fifty underprivileged children at a camp that he leased near Stringtown, which lies approximately 110 miles (177 km) southeast of Oklahoma City. It proved such a success, that the following year he rented the Minnetonka Lodge near Clayton for 45 days and entertained an additional 512 kids. And he repeated that the next summer.
In 1954, he moved the camp to the old Seger Colony, which was formerly a Native American boarding school in Colony, Oklahoma. It was here, as a young man that Dan helped teach modern agricultural techniques to members of the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes. He looked back fondly on his days there and knew that this picturesque location was perfect for expanding the camp to someday entertain thousands of children.
There was no fee for any child to attend what was named Uncle Dan Vinson’s Kids Colony. Each stay was for two weeks during the spring and summer. The only requirements were that the sponsoring organization – whether it be a police department, charity, or whatever – that they pay for transportation to the camp and that one adult accompany every ten children during their stay.
There were four rules at the camp:
- There will be no water in the daily orange juice.
- There will be no filling in the pie.
- Everybody must eat ice cream at 2:30.
- There will be no seconds. Dan explained the rationale for this last rule, “The children have three or four or half a dozen helpings of any food that they want, but it’s still ‘firsts’. We don’t want them to be embarrassed in asking for more.”
As successful as these camp outings proved to be, it was not intended to be a permanent home. It was meant to be transitional until a permanent location could be constructed elsewhere, preferably closer to Oklahoma City.
In 1959, construction on that new camp began on a site just a few miles southwest of Binger, which lies approximately 50 miles (80 km) west of Oklahoma City. There, Dan had leased 160 acres and then purchased an additional 160 acres of adjacent land. Central to this site was a beautiful 10-acre lake that was nestled among sandstone bluffs.
The plan was to build 25 cottages, each large enough to sleep 20 boys or girls and their counselors. One of the first buildings to be completed was a brick cafeteria that could feed 650 guests. All of the buildings were to be both air conditioned and electrically heated. Not that the location had electricity, but the local utility company provided both the transmission lines and the power for free.
In fact, nearly everything was provided at no cost. The bulk of the building materials were donated. The state legislature provided the funding to purchase the bricks. Fifteen prisoners and a guard from the state penitentiary in McAlester were transferred to the site. Each of these men had different skills, whether that be carpentry, bricklaying, plumbing, operating heavy machinery, etc. Uncle Dan noted, “Who ever dreamed of doing something like this without money?”
Once the camp was completed, children would be able to swim, fish, go on long hikes, and even take rides in a Jeep.
As a bulldozer cleared space for a picnic area, Uncle Dan commented, “If only I could’ve had this type of playground when I was a boy. How awed I would have been by the beauty of this spot.”
Sadly, Uncle Dan Vinson passed away on January 26, 1966, at his brother’s home in Tulsa. He was 80 years old and is buried in the Yukon Cemetery in Yukon, which is just outside of Oklahoma City.
What happened with his camp during the last few years of his life and afterward is unclear. A little detective work leads me to suspect that it is now the Cedar Hills Baptist Youth Camp, mainly because the basic details match up. Not just its location, but also that the camp is 160 acres in size with a 10-acre lake. If you can confirm this or have any further information on Uncle Dan’s camp, please let me know.
I’ll leave you with one final quote from Uncle Dan, “Show the little fellow that someone cares, and get those hungry wrinkles out of his stomach, and he’s all right.”
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.