The place doesn’t look like the North Pole, it looks like a tidy neighborhood in south Everett. And Leroy McVay doesn’t quite look like Santa Claus. Yet when he talks about the wooden toys he makes, his eyes light up.
“They’re made for small hands,” said McVay, who is 85. “I don’t like to make them too heavy in case a child decides to throw one.”
That’s spoken like an experienced parent, grandparent and great-grandparent, and McVay is all of those. With five children, seven grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and one on the way — “on St. Patrick’s Day,” he said — it’s clear he delights in bringing happiness to little ones.
A retired captain and training officer with the Shoreline Fire Department, or King County Fire District 4, he began crafting toys more than 20 years ago for his twin granddaughters. Candice and Abby McVay, of Brier, are 24 now.
McVay is still making his wooden trains, trucks, trailers, tractors, race cars and cars with the profile of VW Bugs. He decorates each one with a wood-burning tool, signing the bottom “Santa’s Workshop, Everett Division.”
His efforts now bring joy to hundreds of children McVay has never met. “This year, I took 16 boxes to Volunteers of America, close to 600 toys,” McVay said at his home Tuesday.
He and his wife, Jean Anne, lived in Poulsbo after his retirement. They moved to Everett in 2012 to be closer to family. While in Kitsap County, McVay said his toys went to children served by that area’s food banks. In Everett, VOA has been the recipient.
“It’s just what he does. It’s a hobby, and it’s been wonderful,” said Kimberly Conant, Volunteers of America Western Washington’s vice president of marketing and communications. Conant said VOA didn’t run its own Santa program this year. Instead, she said, “we partnered with Christmas House.”
An Everett-based nonprofit, Christmas House operates annually out of the Everett Boys & Girls Club. This year, according to Christmas House board president Gregg Milne, the group provided gifts for more than 7,500 children.
The VOA’s holiday program, Conant said, sponsored 637 families this year, providing meals and gifts. Also, she said, 120 children from low-income homes and their siblings received gifts through VOA’s early childhood education programs.
So McVay’s sturdy playthings from a simpler time are making their way into children’s hands all over Snohomish County this season.
It all began with McVay’s twin granddaughters. He likes telling the story of their brief TV stardom. As babies, he said, they were cast in “Northern Exposure,” the early-90s CBS series featuring a young doctor in an eccentric town in Alaska.
Scenes meant to be in the fictional town of Cicely were filmed in Roslyn. “Candice played the baby, she was in two episodes,” McVay said. “Abby was cut.”
Those granddaughters were 2 when he bought a homemade wooden toy truck at Value Village. “My wife looked at it and commented that I could make something that good and even better,” McVay said.
Since then, he’s been honing his woodworking skills. With white varieties of wood he buys at Lowe’s in Mill Creek, he makes the toys using a band saw, a drill press and a hand-held sander. He orders 7/8-inch wooden wheels and axles from a toy-making supplier in Texas. And, one drop at a time, he goes through a 16-ounce bottle of premium wood glue each year.
McVay said he had a “fancier set-up” for woodworking at his previous home, but makes do in a chilly garage.
His 18-year firefighting career was one of several occupations. A Naval Reserve veteran who served at Sand Point Naval Air Station, McVay worked for the Boeing Co. in Seattle, beginning in the 707 era. He drove a school bus in Shoreline. He has done volunteer work in Mexico and helps support people there through a charity, Advancing Students Forward.
It’s been nearly 80 years, but McVay vividly remembers a time when his parents fell on hard times. “We were down to 13 cents and a box of cornmeal,” he said, recalling that someone delivered a food basket to his boyhood home in Milwaukee.
“Been there, done that,” he said in an emotional moment as he recalled that long-ago experience.
In this era of high-tech gadgets and bright plastic toys, his handiwork is old-fashioned. He knows his creations reach children in need.
“Kids love these toys,” he said. “They leave something to the imagination.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.