OXFORD – Like Black Friday without the hassle, dozens of books, dolls, electronics and even bicycles went home as employees of the University of Mississippi Facilities Management Department gathered to give and receive items on Dec. 16 in the 25th annual Books and Bears distribution.
The ballroom of the Gertrude C. Ford Ole Miss Student Union resembled a toy superstore for the festive occasion. Gifts filled rows of shelves with books to the left, bears to the right and toys front and center. Seasonal music was provided by Effie and the Soul Tones as university staff old and new sat in joyful anticipation.
As each person's number was called, they quietly came forward to claim selections from the holiday array. Every recipient left with a big smile and a bag bulging with presents for their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends.
"I never would have envisioned 25 years ago when we started this program that it would still be going on," said Donald Cole, associate provost emeritus and associate professor of mathematics emeritus, who returned to campus for the festivities. "The only explanation I can offer is love, which is the spirit of this season. That's what's kept it going all these years.
Cole, along with Janice Murray, associate dean of liberal arts emerita and professor of art emerita, organized the first Books and Bears in 1997 in response to what they saw as a need to help custodial staff provide Christmas gifts to their children. Spread by word of mouth, the initial response to the call for donations was overwhelming.
Steven Holley, UM vice chancellor for administration and finance, acknowledged Cole and others for having initiated the effort a quarter-century ago.
"I want you to know that I deeply appreciate all of you for the amazing work that you do, which is so critical to maintaining the beauty of our campus," Holley said. "It doesn't go unnoticed and I'm proud to be a part of rewarding you in this special way. Merry Christmas and may you have a bright new year."
Sponsored by the campus Black Faculty and Staff Organization, Books and Bears distributes hundreds of new teddy bears, children's books and toys donated by Ole Miss faculty, staff, students and alumni during the last three weeks of the fall semester. As in previous years, the collection was generous and bountiful.
"Continuing the legacy that Dr. Cole and Dr. Murray began takes a team, and our team has really been amazing," said Lauren Jones, director of inclusion and cross-cultural engagement and Books and Bears co-coordinator. "None of this would be possible without the assistance we receive from numerous areas all over campus."
First-time and veteran participants reflected upon how the generosity of others will affect their holiday celebrations.
"I hope I can win some bicycles for my two nephews," said Michael Henderson, of Batesville, who has been a custodial worker for five months. "If so, I won't have to do any other Christmas shopping."
Vonda Woods, of Oxford, was looking for something special for her two grandchildren.
"It's a blessing to come here every year and be able to receive something nice for our families," said the custodial worker who has been working at the university for 15 years. "Whatever I receive, I'll be grateful. I appreciate them making it possible."
Dolls, tablets and bicycles are what Lucy Wilson said she hoped to take home to her two grandchildren.
"This really helps me save money on buying gifts for them," said the first-year custodial worker from Oxford.
Tressie Johnson, of Oxford, said she enjoys the fellowship and opportunity to see fellow employees she doesn't normally see during the school year.
"Getting gifts is always a blessing, but being able to fellowship is the best part of all this to me," said the custodian of eight years. "Many have left us over the years. You just never know what is going on with people from year to year."