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Mary Emma Allison, who created UNICEF Halloween fundraising tradition, dies at 93

Mary Emma Allison, shown here in 1954 with her three children preparing for Halloween, was a minister's wife who devised the idea of trick-or-treaters collecting money for UNICEF in milk cartons. More than $160 million has been raised for the humanitarian group.
Mary Emma Allison, shown here in 1954 with her three children preparing for Halloween, was a minister's wife who devised the idea of trick-or-treaters collecting money for UNICEF in milk cartons. More than $160 million has been raised for the humanitarian group. (UNICEF)

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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 7:29 PM

Millions of children will walk door to door tonight, collecting candy with one hand and carrying orange boxes in the other. When they shout "Trick or treat for UNICEF!," they will carry on a Halloween tradition that Mary Emma Allison started in Philadelphia exactly 60 years ago.

Mrs. Allison, who died Oct. 27 of pneumonia at her home in Lowell, Ind., at age 93, had looked at the bulging bags of Halloween candy collected by children in her neighborhood and told her husband, "It's too bad we can't turn this into something good."

One day, while buying coats for her three children in Philadelphia, Mrs. Allison came upon a parade, complete with a live cow. The aim was to raise money for UNICEF to provide milk to undernourished children around the world.

All at once, Mrs. Allison realized how she could combine the notion of helping others with the revels of Halloween.

With the blessings of UNICEF - the United Nations humanitarian arm for children - her husband, a Presbyterian minister, wrote an article about about trick-or-treating for charity in a nationwide publication for Sunday school students and teachers. On Halloween night 1950, children began to collect loose change in milk cartons.

"We didn't know the idea was catching on until money started coming in to UNICEF," the Allisons' daughter, Mickey, said Saturday.

Mrs. Allison's husband promoted the trick-or-treating idea from the pulpit, and the practice quickly grew. Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF has become perhaps the largest youth volunteer fundraising effort in the country. More than $160 million has been raised so far, and donations are expected to exceed $4 million this year. Mrs. Allison, her daughter said, was particularly proud of the idea that children could do something to help other children.

Mrs. Allison, who was an elementary school teacher for many years, brought home empty milk cartons and washed them in the kitchen sink. She and her children placed orange UNICEF sleeves around the cartons and distributed them to other children, reminding them that even a few pennies could provide food and medicine to the less fortunate.

"I was so proud of the money in my container," Mickey Allison said. "We loved the whole idea of trick-or-treating. We dressed like kids from other countries because they were the ones we were collecting money for."

Mary Emma Woodruff was born March 5, 1917, in Deerfield, N.J., and grew up on a farm. Her mother insisted that she go to college, and she graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois, where she met her husband, Clyde Allison.

After living in Princeton, N.J., where her husband attended seminary, the Allisons moved to Philadelphia and, in the early 1960s, to Chicago. Mrs. Allison taught in inner-city elementary schools from the 1950s until her retirement in 1982.

Her husband died last year after 67 years of marriage.

In addition to Margaret "Mickey" Allison of Cedar Lake, Ind., Mrs. Allison's other survivors include a daughter, Mary Jean Thomson of Riverwoods, Ill., and a son, Monroe Allison of Brooklyn, N.Y.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Allison looked forward to Halloween each year and enjoyed having trick-or-treaters knock on her door. Many times, children asked for contributions to UNICEF, not knowing they were speaking to the woman who devised the idea.

"She was just thrilled," her daughter said. "Halloween was always something this family got a big kick out of."


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