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Posted at 10:43 AM ET, 12/21/2011

A toy man reflects: Woody Woodpecker, toy pianos and a man named Sam Walton

Old stories teach you things. Here is a story about an old toy man.

His name is Ralph Kaufman. He is 93 years old. The other day, at the Riderwood retirement community in Silver Spring, I found him sitting at his kitchen table, cream cheesing a bagel and sipping his morning coffee. There were old toy catalogs on the table with pictures of iconic characters you don’t see anymore: Popeye, Woody Woodpecker and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

I asked Ralph what his first job was in the toy business.

“Marrying my wife Dorothy,” he said. This cracked him up.

Ralph was in the Army back then, and though they grew up in adjoining towns in western Massachusetts, Ralph and Dorothy didn’t meet until some common friends set them up. Theirs was a
Ralph and Dorothy Kaufman, on their wedding day, April 15, 1944.
wartime romance. They married in 1944, and after he left the Army — as a lieutenant colonel — Ralph joined her father’s company, the worldwide toy distributor Jaymar.

Dorothy’s toy pedigree was impeccable.

“Her uncle was Louis Marx,” Ralph said. “You’ve heard of Louis Marx? He was the largest toy manufacturer in the world.”

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, people called Marx the Henry Ford of the toy industry. Ralph eased into the family, into toy royalty, and began crafting his own toy pedigree, traveling around the world selling Jaymar’s popular lines of puzzles, games, Yo-Yos and especially toy pianos. He sold to Woolworth’s, S. S. Kresge Co., and eventually to a man from Arkansas named Sam Walton.

“He had a little company called Walmart,” Ralph said. “They came to me — Mr. Walmart and his wife. He was nothing when I met him. He was just a customer.”

Ralph worshipped his customers. He especially loved meeting with a new customer “cold,” as he put it — sitting them down, getting to know them, talking toys, talking family, winning their business. Ralph delighted in being a big player in an industry that existed to make children happy.

“You were dealing with toys — fun things,” Ralph told me. “You established relationships with buyers. It was all about the relationships.”

This was before Toys R Us. This was before Amazon. This was when little corner toy stores were pillars of communities — when the industry was dominated by families, not corporate conglomerates. Louis Marx was at the center of it all, the kingmaker. He eventually helped Ralph’s father and brother into the toy business, distributing Marx Co. toys, and later that business became a toy store chain swallowed whole by our modern way of buying toys in big-box stores and on the Internet.

That chain was KB Toys — the KB standing for the Kaufman brothers.

I wondered, perhaps out of jealousy, what it must have been like to grow up in Ralph’s house. I asked his daughter, Emily van Agtmael. As she spoke, I was happy my son Sammy wasn’t listening. He would have been devastated that all his father ever does is sit around typing, that there were was once a daddy who brought home every toy in the whole wide world.

“We were showered with toys,” Emily said. “Toys were everywhere. If there was some hot toy and you couldn’t possibly find it, my father could get it. He had toys in the trunk of his car. There were toys in the closet. He gave away toys around the neighborhood. There was nothing he enjoyed more than giving toys to children.”

Ralph’s world of toys is largely gone now. Today you are more likely to see a child playing Angry Birds on an iPad than building a house with Lincoln Logs. If you are lucky enough to happen upon a toy store these days, walking around the aisles is like strolling through another century. Almost all of the toys my children will unwrap for Hanukkah this week were delivered by UPS.

Ralph doesn’t spend a lot of time flipping through his old catalogs. He gets them out when he wants to show someone how the world once worked. His Dorothy is gone now, too. She died earlier this year. He misses her. He misses toys. He misses giving them away.

This holiday season, his family thought that giving stuff away would put a sweet end on a tough year. His friends are of the age that toys would probably not be appropriate, so his daughter got him a heaping pile of chocolates to hand out.

“He’ll take them to the bank, the pharmacy, to the exercise room, to the dining room, to his friends at the front desk,” Emily said. “He needed something nice to do this year, something to give him some fun. Giving away stuff makes him happy. My father loves to make people happy.”

Happy Hanukkah, Ralph. Many, many more.

What was your favorite toy when you were a child? Tweet at us with the hashtag #besttoyever.

By  |  10:43 AM ET, 12/21/2011

 
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