Suffolk’s original elf

Published 12:04 am Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Christmas with brightly-wrapped packages under a well-lit tree was not a holiday that William Ashley had every year.

His family lived somewhere that was difficult for Santa to find, he was told.

William Ashley

But one year, when he about 12, he heard a knock at the door. He ran downstairs to see who might be there and the person at the door handed his parents some toys. They had a special delivery from Santa, he was told.

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That year, on Christmas morning, Ashley unwrapped a small truck with a spring that made the truck move forward when it was pulled back.

“That’s how it started for me,” Ashley said. “We didn’t always have presents at Christmas. I guess I just saw a need that I could help meet.”

Ashley went on to found the joint effort between the Cheer Fund and Toys for Tots efforts in Suffolk to help thousands of Suffolk children have presents under the tree on many Christmas mornings.

Ashley was an active volunteer in the community and volunteered his time with the Boy Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and West End Baptist Church. He was instrumental in getting the Great Dismal Swamp designated a national park and also was recognized as Suffolk’s First Citizen.

After establishing the Christmas toy collection effort, Ashley worked every year for about 40 years to keep the Cheer Fund and Toys for Tots program in Suffolk going.

“My dad was involved in so many things in the community,” said Barry Ashley, his son. “He really taught us kids the importance of that. I think it hinged on the verse ‘As you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done unto me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

While Ashley was working for the Virginia Life Insurance Company, he was part of the Suffolk Association of Live Underwriters, now part of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.

The organization was a catalyst for what Ashley knew was a need in the community.

From his idea to get presents to children, the Suffolk News-Herald’s Cheer Fund was established.

“People would donate money to the Cheer Fund, and we would buy toys with it,” Ashley said.

With the help of individual volunteers, donors, business owners and the city, Ashley was able to successfully purchase toys and distribute them.

“I remember my dad would take me with him sometimes to deliver toys to individual houses because someone would call and have a need,” Barry Ashley said. “There were times we’d go after dark on Christmas Eve. It was whenever there was a need. He was there.”

Years after Ashley got the wheels moving to collect funds and toys to distribute in Suffolk, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve’s Toys for Tots program came in to lend a hand.

The Cheer Fund is still active in Suffolk and brings in tens of thousands of dollars for the effort every year. In addition to the fund money, Toys for Tots donates toys and funds and helps distribute the toys every year.

Last year, the program made sure Santa had directions to nearly 5,000 children’s homes.

After 40 years as one of Santa’s top elves, Ashley handed over his elf hat to John Woleben, who has been heading up the effort for about the last eight years, Woleben estimated.

“Billy Ashley is synonymous with Toys for Tots in Suffolk,” Woleben said. “He was the brains behind the operation. He knew what needed to get done and he did it. Every year, he did it. He was the organizer, the motivator and the person who got the job done.”