James Heffernan, a Marine veteran who helped establish Helena’s Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots, has passed away. He was 88.

James Heffernan, a Marine veteran who helped establish Helena’s Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots, has passed away. He was 88. (Facebook)

HELENA, Mont. (Tribune News Service) — James “Jim” Heffernan of Helena was known for many things, including serving his country and the people in it through protecting them and their holiday seasons.

Heffernan, who helped to establish Helena’s Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program in 1978, passed away at age 88 on March 8.

“(Heffernan) was a wonderful man. I love that man dearly,” said Howard Mears, Helena Toys for Tots coordinator since 2014. “He had a heart as big as the Big Sky. He took care of kids and loved them.”

Heffernan was born in Chicago and grew up in Wilmette, Illinois. He graduated high school in 1952, and the following year, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in the military for over 24 years, fighting in the Korean War for 13 months before joining the U.S. Coast Guard in 1961, where he served the rest of his military career.

Throughout the latter years of his life, Heffernan was on a first name basis with St. Nicholas, also known as Santa. After retiring from the military and finding his way to Helena, the first year of the program Heffernan drove from Helena through the Seeley area to Missoula in search of families in need during the holiday season. He then solicited and delivered around 300 toys to children in need.

The Marine Toys for Tots Program collects new unwrapped toys and distributes them to less-fortunate children at Christmas.

It began in 1947 as the brainchild of Marine Corps Reserve Maj. Bill Hendricks. His wife, Diane, had a few handcrafted dolls and asked him to deliver them to an agency that supports children in need. When Hendricks told his wife that he could not find such an organization, she instructed him to “start one!”

Mears stated that Heffernan “lived and breathed Toys for Tots” ever since he helped start it around 45 years ago. Mears highlighted that Heffernan’s wife, JoAnne, also played a huge role in supporting the program from baking cookies to hosting a toy distribution out of their house basement.

Heffernan went on to become the Helena Toys for Tots’ coordinator and served in that role for almost 30 years. The National Toys for Tots organization honored Heffernan as their national coordinator in 2004. Even after he stepped down as a coordinator, he continued helping the program in other ways until he passed away.

The number of toys distributed grows in the Helena community each year. According to the Helena Toys for Tots’ website, 2022 was the 75th anniversary of the national campaign, and in Helena, over 2,550 children were reached by almost 19,000 toys distributed. Mears highlighted that they run a second Toys for Tots in addition to Helena for around 24,000 children in need in Toys for Tots Native American Program in Montana

“It’s a very interesting program,” said Mears. “The people we have, the donors we have, the volunteers we have are certainly a reflection on the Helena community ... It’s just people coming together to help kids, and we love to do that.”

Instead of flowers, the family is asking that people consider donating a new, unwrapped toy or monetary donations for Toys for Tots at Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home, where a viewing is scheduled at 5 p.m. on Thursday at Anderson Stevenson Wilke Funeral Home, 3750 N Montana Ave, followed by a vigil at 6 p.m.

Heffernan also served as commandant of the Marine Corps League Department of Montana in 1995. He was a representative for the Veterans Affairs Volunteer Services and for the Montana Veterans Affairs Cemetery Committee, commander of the American Legion, Post 2 of Lewis and Clark and was involved with the Lewis and Clark Honor Guard who buried veterans at Fort Harrison and other cemeteries around Montana. Later in his life, Heffernan was a hospice volunteer.

The funeral home obituary states that Heffernan “had a compassionate ear for veterans to find out how they were doing and listening to them talk about personal matters, either by phone or visiting them in the hospital.”

He also served in law enforcement throughout his life as a police officer, small arms instructor and range officer. After moving back to Helena in 1978, he became a sworn reserve deputy for the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, and in 1981, he became the police chief in East Helena. He then served as a sheriff’s deputy in Phillipsburg and was sergeant at arms for the senate during the 1995-2001 Montana legislative sessions.

His family notes in his obituary that he was “a steadfast father, loving husband and a faithful and loyal friend.”

He is preceded in death by his father, Edward Heffernan, and his brother, Patrick Heffernan.

He is survived by his wife, JoAnne, son Kevin and various family members.

The funeral mass is scheduled for noon Friday at SS Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church, 122 W Riggs, East Helena. The burial with Military Honors at the Montana State Veterans Cemetery, Fort Harrison, will follow. A reception will be held afterward at the Social Hall of Anderson Stevenson Wilke.

(c)2023 the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.)

Visit the Independent Record at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now