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Helena Toys for Tots remember founding member Jim Heffernan

Helena Toys for Tots remember founding member
Posted at 12:28 PM, Mar 21, 2023

HELENA — On March 8, Helena lost one of Santa’s most passionate helpers. He wasn’t a jolly little elf, but rather an intimidating Marine and retired police officer named James “Jim” Heffernan. A man who helped establish Toys for Tots in the Helena area.

“Jim was a curmudgeon, I mean he absolutely was. We teased each other unmercifully all the time,” joked Helena Toys for Tots Co-coordinator Howard Mears. “We had fun, we had a huge amount of respect for each other. His attitude about Toys for Tots was absolutely remarkable. He believed in you folks out there and he believed in the kids in this community.”

Heffernan was born on September 29, 1934, in Chicago, Illinois. In 1953, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served in the Korean War. He enlisted in the United States Coast Guard in 1961, and served for 24 years before retiring in 1978.

In 1978, Heffernan and his wife moved to Montana to raise their family. In a 2018 interview, Heffernan told MTN he was having a cup of coffee with the Marine recruitment officer in Helena when the idea to start a local Toys for Tots came about. Toys for Tots nationally was founded in 1947, but even by the 1970s individual locations had to run the program basically on their own.

The first year Heffernan personally drove from Helena to the Seeley-Swan area and then to Missoula asking about families that might be in need. He then came back to Helena and began soliciting donations. By the Christmas season, they had ended up raising and delivering around 300 toys for the kids that year. A number that would only snowball in the following years, with the organization raising 129,132 toys for families in 2022.

“When they didn’t have a place to have their distribution, they had it in their basement of their house. And they not only gave the people toys, but they fed them at the same time,” said Mears recalling a story he had heard from Joanne Heffernan.

Time catches up with all, however, and after three decades of running Helena Toys for Tots Heffernan stepped down as coordinator. But he never stopped helping.

“That’s what I remember most about him. He was just always there. His wife said ‘no he’s not going to make it to this one.’ He was there. That’s just the type of person he was,” recalled Helena Toys for Tots Co-coordinator Angie Hall.

Four generations of Helena Toys for Tots coordinators

Heffernan cared deeply for his community. He was a law enforcement officer and Police Chief in East Helena. From 1995 to 2001, he was Sergeant at Arms for the Montana Senate during the legislative sessions.

He also served as a volunteer for numerous veterans services, including as Commandant of the Marine Corps League and Commander of the American Legion, Post 2 of Lewis and Clark County. He also worked as a representative for the Montana Veterans Affairs Cemetery Committee and later, was involved in the Lewis and Clark Honor Guard entrusted with burying veterans at Fort Harrison and other cemeteries throughout Montana.

“Jim is… I’m going to miss that old fart. I’m sorry I know I’m not supposed to say that on TV. But, he would get to your heart,” Mears told MTN. “I loved what he did, I loved that man dearly. I liked what he did in our community. I liked what he did for people and for kids and people loved him as well. And we are dearly going to miss him.”

Heffernan loved giving out challenge coins during Toys for Tots distributions and always tried to recognize the goodness he saw, both big and small.

“He was one where you didn’t know to be scared of him or give him a hug,” recalled Hall. “Every time he left me a voicemail saying ‘call me’ in that gruff voice I thought ‘oh no, what did I do?’ And it was usually just to give me and attaboy or some encouragement… It’s going to be hard to see that empty chair this year.”

Jim Heffernan

Heffernan was honored a couple of times by National Toys for Tots for his work. However, during a 2018 interview with MTN he was quick to point out he didn’t need any thanks and that the true recognition should go to the people who donated to help families in need.

Mears explained that serving in the military, especially in combat, can take a toll on a person’s heart. Toys for Tots, and other community services, can help heal some of those invisible wounds.

“What we found was there was a great deal of healing that takes place when we do things for others,” explained Mears.

For those looking to honor Heffernan, it’s pretty easy. Just make a donation to Helena Toys for Tots.

Helping your community doesn’t take a grand gesture, just do what you can. It adds up.

Jim Heffernan

Service Schedule


5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

Thursday March 23, 2023

Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home

3750 N Montana Ave.

Helena, Montana 59602


6:00 p.m.

Thursday March 23, 2023

Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home

3750 N Montana Ave.

Helena, Montana 59602

Funeral Mass

12:00 p.m.

Friday March 24, 2023

SS Cyril & Methodius Catholic Church

120 W Riggs

East Helena, Montana 59635

Burial with Military Honors

Following the Mass

Friday March 24, 2023

Montana State Veterans Cemetery

1900 Williams Ave.

Fort Harrison, Montana 59636


Following the burial

Friday March 24, 2023

Social Hall of Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home

3750 N Montana Ave.

Helena, Montana 59602

Positively Montana