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“We make toys because they make us better people.”

Filed by KOSU News in Public Insight Network.
December 21, 2012

Peter R. LeGrand makes about 200 toys every year for kids in the Chicago area. (Photo shared by Peter R. LeGrand)

Peter R. LeGrand makes toys. Lots of toys. Two hundred, usually, every year: Cradles, cars, airplanes, other things that go — all made of wood.

He mostly gives them away to children across his hometown of Chicago. But, as he tells us below, this year has been different.

It’s the first time Peter’s had to celebrate the holidays without Jeff Schaffer, his best friend of 42 years. “We did everything together,” Peter says about growing up with Jeff in Chicago’s southern suburbs. They remained close even after Jeff moved away for graduate school.

This year’s toy-making extravaganza — he gathered friends together for a food-and-toy-painting-party this week — was scheduled to coincide with the first anniversary of Jeff’s death.

Yesterday, Peter and Jeff’s sister and nephew delivered about 100 of their creations to a neighborhood nonprofit to share with families there. 

Here’s Peter’s story of loss, friendship, giving and growth over the holidays.



Peter LeGrand, Chicago

Peter R. LeGrand, Chicago

Every year for the last seven years or so, I have been making toys around the winter holidays and giving them away.

When I tell people about this thing that I do, they get the most interesting looks on their faces. Some of them say things like, “You seem kinda tall for an elf,” or “Are you Santa?”

Peter has been making toys for about seven years around Christmastime. During the rest of the year, he designs and builds bicycle cargo trailers from recycled crutches and other materials. (Photo shared by Peter R. LeGrand)

I can rule out both of these possibilities very quickly, as I am now six-foot-three which is, I believe, well outside of the basic height requirement for elves. I was technically born a Jew, as well, so the whole Santa thing is just not likely, either. I happen to like Santa — but, well, you get the idea.

What they don’t know is that by making toys, I get to travel on a road of rewards that more people should experience. I have met faces, emotions, tears and smiles that I simply would not have had access to if I did not do this. I get to stock up on the real stuff I need to feed my soul for the year ahead.

Making these toys is no great hardship for me; I have been making things from wood since I was about 11 years old — for more than 40 years.

The most tedious part of the toy-making is cutting wheels. If I make 50 cars and 50 airplanes, each with four wheels on them, I have to cut 400 wheels, plus a few spares — just in case.

That is a lot of wheels.

Okay, let’s be honest; it’s more than a lot. It’s a crap-load of wheels!

But for every wheel that I cut and then sand, I get to think about some child who will hold the toy I am making. I get to ponder that child’s life for a moment, and wonder how he or she might feel while holding the toy I am making. In those brief instances, I get to hold in my heart the absolute certainty that no matter how bad the previous hours or days might have been for that child, there will be one perfect moment of joy because of what I do. Cutting wheels is fun when you think about it that way.

Jeff died last year during the holidays. (Photo shared by Peter LeGrand)

Peter’s best friend, Jeff Schaffer, died last year during the holidays. (Photo shared by Peter R. LeGrand)

Now comes the part of this little story that is hard: Last year my best friend in the world, Jeff, wanted to help me make toys. He had been pretty sick, but managed to travel from Washington, D.C., to see all of us here in Chicago at Thanksgiving. When he was here, I told him that I was starting on my annual toy-making adventure. He asked what he could do to help, and I told him that I had not gotten the paint for the toys yet.

A few days later, after Jeff had gone back to D.C., several large boxes arrived, with cans and cans and cans and CANS of paint — and bags and bags and BAGS of brushes. I could have painted a full-sized ark! (Jeff never did anything by half. If you doubt that, ask me about the three-story tree house he and I built as children.)

I held a toy-painting party on a Sunday last year. There was food, and drink and fun. My friends came, and we painted toys and laughed — it was a great day. I took pictures of everything that happened and sent them to Jeff. A few days later, I loaded up the toys and took them to one of the places that would distribute them to the world. I took more pictures and sent them to Jeff as well.

He and I spoke on the phone daily, and I could tell he was pleased about everything that had been done, even though he was far away. I always told him how great his contribution was and how he had made a difference.

A few days after I dropped off the toys, Jeff passed away. That is a pain that will take more than just this year to resolve. I miss him so much and I suppose I always will.

This year, Jeff's nephew Jack has taken up the toy-making mantle, and has become Peter LeGrand's elf assistant. (Photo shared by Peter LeGrand)

This year, Jeff’s nephew Jack has taken up the toy-making mantle, and has become Peter’s elf assistant. (Photo shared by Peter R. LeGrand)

This year, Jeff’s 12-year-old nephew Jack, who lives nearby, has been helping in out in my shop. He’s no elf either, but he’s every bit as capable! Jack has, in true toy-making fashion, paid his elf dues by mastering the wheel-cutter. He has gotten good and dust-covered, and has proven himself a worthy and equal toymaker. We even created what we’re convinced is the world’s first trapezoidal wooden wagon wheel that somehow rolls straight!

We are all here: The toymakers, the painters, the people who send them out to the ones who need the toys, and most of all, the children who get to hold them for that one perfect moment.

This we get to carry with us all the year round. All those toys’ wheels help us in the moments we might need them. We make toys because they make us better people.

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