LAFAYETTE — John Hampton, the retired Marine lieutenant colonel who in the late 1940s used his communications savvy to help launch the Marines' famous "Toys for Tots" program that is still going strong, died Sunday at Deer Hill Care Home. He was 103.
"He really loved children, and he worked hard for them," said Clare Revelli, a longtime family friend of John Hampton and his wife Nora.
Indeed, a few days before he died, Hampton — apparently sensing the end was near — called each of his three Deer Hill caretakers to his room for a private meeting, during which he said goodbye and gave a military salute. "He knew it was his time to go," Revelli said Wednesday.
Revelli said Hampton also was keenly aware that two men he admired — Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — both died on July 4, 1826.
"He was a true American soldier, and that's why he wanted to go on the Fourth of July."
A graduate of Baylor University's journalism program, he worked for various newspapers and wire services in Texas, Louisiana and Kansas before joining the Marines during World War II. He was sent to the Pacific theater to code and decode encrypted messages, and after the war became a public information officer for the Marine Reserve training center in Los Angeles. It was there he met Marine reserve Maj. Bill Hendricks, a public relations officer for Warner Bros., whose idea to put a toy collection barrel outside that company's movie theaters evolved into Toys for Tots. Hampton was enlisted to coordinate collection efforts.
The program was a long-term success. In 2009, Toys for Tots distributed more than 16 million toys to more than 7 million children.
Hampton later worked in public relations in Oakland.
Nora Hampton was a onetime Oakland Tribune journalist nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 for her firsthand account of being on a plane hijacked to Cuba. She and her husband lived for many years in Orinda. Nora died in 1994, and their son Mikey died in 2006 at age 62.
Hampton began to suffer from dementia in early 2000, Revelli said, but still had periods of clarity. He celebrated his 103rd birthday in late May, a celebration described in a May 29 Contra Costa Times news feature.
He leaves no close relatives as survivors, Revelli said, and did not want a formal funeral or memorial service. But she expects the Marine Corps will hold some sort of ceremony in his honor at an as-yet-undetermined time. His ashes will be scattered at sea — per his request — as were his wife's and son's.