COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (The Gazette) - When Bob Tretheway passes, it will be "with cookies in my mouth and ice cream in my hands."
"I've already dictated it," the longtime leader of Christmas Unlimited said Thursday from his hospice bed at Penrose Hospital. It's the place where he says he'll end his years-long battle with congestive heart disease.
"You come to a certain point where it happens," said Tretheway, 69, in a cheery voice belying the gravity of his condition. "We accept it."
As the face of Christmas Unlimited for 26 years, mostly as executive director, Tretheway became Colorado Springs' unofficial Santa Claus.
The organization, started in 1923 by four women from the southwest part of town, went through many ups and down over the decades, changing hands nearly a dozen times before Tretheway took over as president in 1991.
At the time, the group was "on the ropes" and basically bankrupt, he said. Things were so desperate, Tretheway talked of painting cardboard boxes into doll houses to be able to give children something to enjoy Christmas morning.
Rather than closing the nonprofit, Tretheway helped introduce new fundraisers and toy drives to dig it out of debt.
Those efforts since have been replaced by year-round collections, and the number of children served has been scaled back since the early 2000s, when the group regularly helped more than 10,000 children have happier Christmases.
Giving "was a core to (Tretheway's) being," said Jon Severson, founder of Colorado Springs Young Professionals, in a Facebook post. He'd partnered with Tretheway on toy drives for 11 years.
"He just worked hard every day so that come Christmastime, 12,000 kids in Colorado Springs who may not have toys any other way would," Severson wrote on Facebook.
Christmas Unlimited still is considered one of the state's largest nonprofit toy distributors, boasting on its website, "There is no other program like it!"
Tretheway says not to "rattle that cage too loud."
"It was an organization effort, not a Bob effort," he said. "We gathered ourselves together to serve the community, and we've been strong ever since."
And Christmas Unlimited will continue to support the area's needy children without him, Tretheway said. As if offering proof, he said staff and volunteers Thursday were passing out school supplies to area children as a part of their Operation Back to School drive.
"That's what Christmas Unlimited was about and will continue to be about," Tretheway said. "We will not give up."