SANFORD, N.C.–Since the 1970s, Army veteran Jim Annis has been a real-life Santa to the children in his community.
He estimates to have made about 250 wooden toys each year — cars, trucks and even longer semitrailers — that he hands out to children at a local Salvation Army.
This year, at the age of 80, he made nearly 300 due to demand, costing nearly $1,000 to keep the assembly line moving inside his woodshop at home.
While Annis gets a lot of the wood for free and some donations to help pay for the wheels and other supplies, he said much of the cost comes out of his pocket.
“I get my pay in the smiles on the kids’ faces,” he said last week. “It fills my heart with joy.”
Before he served his community, Annis served his country.
In 1959, he enlisted in the Army after high school and spent a year in South Korea with the 1st Cavalry Division.
He drove a 2.5-ton maintenance shop truck and worked as a mechanic. “I could fix anything that they brought over,” he said.
Following his tour, he headed to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where he decided to go airborne.
“I figured I might as well go airborne and make that extra money,” he said, laughing.
He was assigned to the 618th Engineering Company (Airborne), where he worked until he got out of the service in 1962. “Everything that we had, we could drop,” he said of his unit.
Annis said he was always good with his hands. It started in ninth grade when his principal suggested that he take courses in a trade.
His hearing, he admitted, wasn’t that great and he struggled with reading and writing. But he found his calling at the high school’s woodshop.
“A lot of people work with their brain,” he said, “but God gave me my knowledge in my hands and my feet.”
He mentions his feet because he also became a competitive clogging dancer, the official state folk dance of North Carolina. While now retired from it, he still dances when he rings the Salvation Army bell for donations, which he has done for the past 20 years.
Some people he says stop to watch him and even call him the “dancing man” as they take a break from shopping.
“When I hear music, my feet can’t stand still,” he said. “They enjoy me cutting up a little bit. Knowing that I’m putting a smile on their faces just makes me feel good.”
His real passion, though, is in his woodshop.
He makes wooden furniture, jewelry boxes, shelves and more. But he really loves making the toys.
While growing up with five siblings in Michigan, Annis said his father, who worked as a city maintenance worker, couldn’t always afford to buy them gifts.
“With six kids at Christmas time, you don’t have a whole lot of money to get toys for everybody,” he said.
As an adult, he decided he didn’t want other children to go through the same experience.
Throughout the year, he labors away in his woodshop making about five toys a week. He goes to homebuilders to ask for leftover wood to build his toys. And once crafted, most of them require two coats of paint and shellac that takes days to dry.
“I start making them as soon as Christmas is over,” he said. “It takes me awhile to make that many of them.”
When his fleet of toys is finished, he takes them down to the Salvation Army. As families come in to pick up food and clothing, he tells the children to pick a toy that they like.
He recently also started to build wooden memorials with small, folded U.S. flags for families who have lost loved ones in war.
He gets emotional when he talks about the memorials. The cost of war, he said, is more than the price of equipment and vehicles — it costs human lives.
“I just wanted to let them know that someone appreciates the loved ones that they lost in combat,” he said.
If anyone is interested in one of the memorials, he encourages them to contact him at 919-842-5445.
“They can just give me a call and let me know,” he said. “I won’t charge them nothing.”