John Harden has often been compared to Santa Claus. But this 91-year-old native of Scotland, with his reed-thin voice and twinkling blue eyes, more nearly resembles one of the jolly man's elves.
The Prince William County School Board honored Harden last month for his monthly gifts of handmade wooden toys to the county's students, bringing Christmas to children all year long. Like his North Pole counterpart, Harden makes toys for one reason -- "I like to make children happy."
Although he is widowed and lives alone, Harden's small frame house in Dale City is a center of neighborhood activity. After school and on weekends children gravitate to the place, testing the dozens of toys awaiting delivery that clutter the little kitchen, eating candy and drinking the soda Harden provides, watching television and keeping the man they call "Pop-Pop" company. During the day, Harden keeps busy letting a neighbor's dog out to chase squirrels and back in again to eat.
Twice a month, two Gar-Field High School sophomores bearing wax, cleanser and dusting rags clean Harden's house. And at least once a month, Harden's friend Gus Lurty shows up to chauffeur Harden to the next class of eager youngsters, who will each receive a colorful toy carved with care and painted in the tiny workshop where Harden spends much of his time.
"I work until I get tired or hungry," Harden said. "Then I stop just long enough to take a nap or eat something and I start again."
Harden came to this country from Scotland in 1921 while in his twenties. He settled in Cadiz, Ohio, where he married and where he and wife raised five children. He worked in coal mines for 50 years.
When Harden retired, his son Bob, who lives in Dale City, persuaded him to buy a house across the street from him. Although Harden had made a few toys while in Ohio, the toymaking and giveaway program did not begin in earnest until Harden moved to Prince William.
In today's age of computers, Gobots and complex toys, Harden's creations are simplicity itself. A red block puzzle trick; a carved universe with the planets revolving around a wooden Sun; a device to teach children the months of the year; several toys with balls and marbles that fit precisely into carefully carved holes or travel along balanced rods; six letters in a tray that, when in order, spell out what Mother Hubbard said when she went to her cupboard: I C U R M T (I see you are empty).
Few of the toys have names. Said Harden: "I let the kids name them; if I did it, I'd just forget the names anyway."
He said he does not know how much he spends on plywood, balls, marbles and paint every year. "I never count it," he said. "I just do it."
Making toys is not all he does. His monthly trips to Prince William kindergarten and first grade classes include stints at the piano, where the self-taught musician bangs out a lively "She'll Be Comin' Around the Mountain," or perhaps a Scottish tune whose name he has forgotten. His feet tap in time to the music, but he said he does not dance: "I don't dance -- my feet just move."
"He held that certificate in the air and did a little dance when the School Board commended him last month," recalled school spokeswoman Kristy Larson. "He was real cute."
Lurty, a safety and security counselor for the county school system, said he met Harden through Harden's son 10 years ago and has been helping him deliver toys since then. "It takes only an hour once a month," said Lurty, who makes the arrangements with the school principals. "You don't see the kinds of toys Pop makes in stores. And you don't see his attitude very often either. There is no greed in that man; money doesn't matter to him. All he wants out of his life is a chance to do something for other people."
Said Harden with a chuckle: "Oh, I'm tight. Haven't you heard how tight a Scotsman is?" Then he thrusted two of his creations, a brightly painted candlestick and a message pad made from popsicle sticks, on a visitor. "I like making you happy, too," he said. "This would be a better world if there were no need for money."