W. Earle Eskilson was devoted to the people of Portland, having served twice on the City Council. So it was natural for him to jump in and help a brand-new charity buy toys for the city’s needy children.

“My father was there in ’49,” Peter Eskilson said. “It was a pretty small operation at that time.”

Indeed it was. With many families in Portland struggling in December 1949, Portland assistant welfare director Matthew Barron asked Evening Express Editor Robert Bruce Beith to help raise money so that no children would go without toys to unwrap at Christmas.

Beith began writing a column asking readers to donate. He wrote it under the pseudonym Bruce Roberts, his first and middle names reversed.

Thus began what is now the Press Herald Toy Fund in the Spirit of Bruce Roberts.

But from the beginning, Barron and Beith had help.

W. Earle Eskilson was born in 1899 and served in the Army at the end of World War I. He served on the Portland City Council in the 1920s and again in the 1930s. During World War II, he worked at the South Portland shipyards building Liberty ship transports that carried cargo and troops across the Atlantic.

Eskilson, as it happens, also was close to Matthew Baron. “They were cousins on my mother’s side. They were good friends for years,” Peter Eskilson said.

So, W. Earle Eskilson was among the first of hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers who have made the fund work for the past 69 years.

Peter Eskilson was 10 when the whole thing started, so he doesn’t remember much from that time. But he has watched the fund grow over the years knowing his father was there in the beginning, and for many years thereafter.

“He worked with them for quite a while,” his son said.

W. Earle Eskilson remained a community leader for decades more. In the 1950s, he owned and operated Eskilson’s Fish Market on Congress Street at the foot of Munjoy Hill. In the ’60s and ’70s, he worked for Columbia Market, a grocery store on Brighton Avenue.

W. Earle Eskilson died in 1983. Peter now donates to the fund every year in his father’s memory, and in the memory of his wife, Sally Ann Eskilson.

That first year, the fund raised nearly $4,000 and provided gifts to more than 1,500 kids.

Now, the fund raises more than $100,000 in annual donations and its 50 volunteers provide holidays gifts to more than 3,500 children in six counties.

THE PRESS HERALD TOY FUND in the Spirit of Bruce Roberts uses donations from readers to provide toys to thousands of Maine children who might otherwise not receive holiday gifts because of hardships faced by their parents. Now in its 69th year, the fund is accepting applications for toys from needy families in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Androscoggin, Lincoln and Knox counties.

DONATIONS to help buy the toys can be made at pressheraldtoyfund.org or by writing checks to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund and mailing them to the fund at P.O. Box 7310, Portland, ME 04112.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, call 791-6672 or go to: pressheraldtoyfund.org.

SEE MORE STORIES about the fund at pressherald.com/press-herald-toy-fund/.

TODAY’S DONATIONS

A grateful grammy of 10 $500

Ruth Chapter #14 OES $150

In memory of Charlotte Conant McLeod from Vicki Cahill Hopewell $50

In memory of George H.W. Bush from Paul and Tracey Greenwood $200

NO child should be without a nice present at Xmas! $100

In memory of Marie Brien, who loved all children and Christmas, from Kathy and Warren $25

Paula and Louis Abbotoni $100

For Ginny Lawless $50

Bob and Sue Turkington $50

Joan Gogerty $50

Norman, Linda, Paul and Michelle Curthoys $50

June Delano $50

Anonymous $100

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Derek Berg $400

Margie and Roger $100

In memory of Mom – Helen K. $25

Anonymous $40

In memory of Adrienne T. Newell, from Chris and Christine Newell $100

Merry Christmas! Tom “Santa Claus” Joyce $20

Merry Christmas! Edie and Jack Cornell $40

In memory of Barbara F. Jacobs $30

Anonymous $50

In loving memory of our parents J. Ansel and Evelyn Hanson, and Nick and Barbara Nichols from George and Maggie $50

In memory of Diana Sue Sylvester, killed on Dec. 22, 1972. Children deserve happy memories. $50

Merry Christmas to all the children! $50

In honor of my sister Judy Curran, and Dad, Mom and Randy Mooers, who all loved Christmas $50

In memory of Crouton, Zeus, Buckwheat, Cheetah-bop, Pugsley, Sammy, Murph the Surf and Muffin – Merry Christmas over the Rainbow Bridge $50

Year to date:  $69,079