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CHRISTMAS ON TRACK: TRAINLOAD OF GIFTS PULLS INTO S.L. TO PROMOTE MARINE CORPS’ `TOYS FOR TOTS’

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The sun was shining and a gentle breeze blowing, but the 50 children from low-income families didn't seem to think there was anything odd about Santa Claus stepping off a train in October.

And they smilingly accepted a new breed of "elves," uniform-clad U.S. Marine Corps Reservists carrying barrels of toys.The train is the "Chaps Express," and Salt Lake City was the sixth stop on a 22-city, 16,000-mile tour to promote the annual Christmas Toys for Tots program sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and Chaps Ralph Lauren. At each stop, conductor Zeb Love and Santa distribute toys to needy children.

Utah will kick off its campaign Nov. 20, according to Gunnery Sgt. John Pernyak, who coordinates the local campaign. But people don't have to wait that long to get started. The reservists will accept toys - or cash donations to buy toys (they get a hefty discount) - anytime.

Last year over 1,200 Utah families screened for eligibility by the Division of Family Services received 4,300 toys. The Marines ask families to donate new toys at several locations, including Rainbo Oil, Albertson's, Smith's, the Nail House and Volt Temporary Services. Marines will give the toys to needy families the week before Christmas.

The train trip and the program are important to Love.

"If not for these whistle stops and the program, a lot of little kids would not get anything," the 65-year-old conductor said. "Last year we distributed 7 million toys to 3.5 million kids in the U.S. That's lots of little, happy, smiling faces."

A self-described "tenderheart," Love grew up on a farm in Arkansas in a family that didn't have much love. "My father thought that if you provided enough clothing and food, that was just about it. I never remember him telling me he loved me. He never took me fishing. So many people can't express love and I've always tried to do that because the lack of it hurts. I happened to be one of those needy kids and I love to get on this old train and go all out to make kids happy."

For 40 years, Love worked for the Union Pacific Railroad, working his way up to conductor. Then he was loaned to Amtrak and was conductor of the "Love Train," a 250-mile stretch across Texas that received world attention because of his personal touch.

He was featured in magazines and newspapers as well as on national television programs for things he did, like stopping the train to deliver toys to a poor little boy. Each Christmas he dressed as Santa and distributed candy and gifts - because he wanted to. And he made several unauthorized stops, as passengers cheered him on, to bring a little laughter and light into lonely hearts.

He and his wife Louise were determined their own nine children would never wonder if they were loved. As they grew up, he turned his attention to other children. Now, he and the "Love Train" are known across the country.

Chaps Ralph Lauren leased the Old Black Diamond, a 73-year-old luxurious private railroad car that used to haul railroad big shots around the country. It renamed the 101-ton car the Chaps Express. That car is an attention-catching vehicle to point out the number of children who would not have a Christmas without the generosity of communities.