HAMMOND | This year's Good Neighbor Christmas Cheer Fund has lost one of its most mysterious and generous donors.
John Gescheidler, who manages the holiday fund with his son, said he recently learned that Grandpa Claus of North Hammond died earlier this year. The mysterious donor had made generous and memorable donations for decades.
He once had a clown deliver his annual donation. Another time, firefighters pulled into Hammond National Bank in a fire engine to deliver the donation.
Last year he made the donation on the day some believed the Mayan calendar had predicted the world would end.
Gescheidler said he recently learned that James P. Vacendak, 72, of Highland, died Feb. 27. His obituary revealed he was Grandpa Claus of North Hammond.
"He'll be truly missed, and he was greatly appreciated," he said. "I'm just shocked. To have a benefactor like that fall out of the program leaves very big shoes to fill."
The news comes as the fund enters its second week this campaign season. Gescheidler said he expects there will be a greater demand for assistance this year because of recent cuts to food stamp benefits.
Last month the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana reported an increase in the number of people visiting food pantries and soup kitchens. Megan Sikes, a spokeswoman for the food bank, said many people have told volunteers they are visiting the pantry because of cuts to food stamp benefits.
Gescheidler said the fund has raised $4,156.31 so far. Organizers hope to raise at least $25,000 this year. The group works with The Salvation Army Hammond/Munster Corps to distribute food vouchers to families throughout Northwest Indiana.
To donate to the fund, visit www.hammondnational.com and scroll to the bottom of the page to click on the PayPal link. Donations also can be sent to The Times, 601 45th Ave., Munster, IN 46321. Checks must be made payable to the Good Neighbor Christmas Cheer Fund.
The next coupon for donations will appear in today's Times.