A wooden toy car maker in Utah tackles a new venture while planning for retirement

A wooden toy car maker in Utah tackles a new venture while planning for retirement

Estimated reading time: 4-5 minutes

WEST JORDAN — A Utah playmaker hangs his hat, making way for a new generation to take on the job.

“If you want to be happy, you do something for someone else,” says the toymaker.

These are the words often chanted by Alton Thacker, a man who is perhaps the most famous playmaker in Utah history, and his warehouse space is where learning begins.

Not only by learning from his example but by encouraging learning.

For proof of this, look no further than the dozens of volunteers who sort books and stuff backpacks with school supplies.

Thacker has spent decades building over 1.4 million toy cars and giving them free to children around the world. As you can imagine, doing this has been a challenge, especially when you’re running a nonprofit that continues to grow.

It was a roller coaster ride. He’s gone from losing the donations of those who paid rent on his warehouse space, to Mike Rowe’s recognition and awards from TV fame “Dirty Jobs”, to having to pack up and move to a new place.

All the while, requests for toy car boxes have been steadily increasing, and Thacker was never the one to tell anyone “no.” Although neither he nor any of his volunteers received a salary.

“The happy face is worth it,” he said. “I don’t know who benefits more. Is it the little guy who gets the game, or the old guy who comes in and can see the toys all day and loves them?”

But they’re not all “old people,” as Thacker puts it. One of his most loyal lieutenants is his granddaughter, Emil Johnson.

“For me and my family, my kids love to come here and be a part of this and I don’t know what I would do without it,” Johnson said.

A volunteer at Tiny Tim's Toy Factory in western Jordan sorts book donations.
A volunteer at Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory in western Jordan sorts book donations. (Photo: Raymond Boon, KSL-TV)

But the chainsaws are silent on this day. Instead, volunteers stuff the bags and sort among the piles of used books. They’ve all been donated, thanks to a business called Discover Books.

“When they came, it was four stands of books,” Thacker said. “Four feet high, four feet square, full of books.”

A volunteer at Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory in western Jordan sorts book donations.

Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory, a non-profit organization for Thacker, has been working with a group called Eyes 4 Zimbabwe for more than a decade, giving them tens of thousands of toy cars to distribute.

This year, that shipment will include books and school supplies. Johnson said they desperately need it.

“They carry a brick with them to school so they can sit on it, do their calculations in the dirt, and then carry the bricks home,” she said.

For Thacker, being around the warehouse gave him a purpose, although it wasn’t as easy as it used to be. Suffering from a stroke left him thinking about his next step.

“My memory is what vibrates,” Thacker said.

Emily Johnson, right, discusses what kinds of books they should pack in backpacks due to be sent to Zimbabwe.
Emily Johnson, right, discusses what kinds of books they should pack in backpacks due to be sent to Zimbabwe. (Photo: Raymond Boon, KSL-TV)

Thus, as he approaches his 87th birthday, Thacker hangs his hat, and it will require the strength of several family members to capture it, including Johnson.

“What he did will need the three of us to do now,” she said.

But don’t count Thacker out yet.

“I get up in the morning, get dressed by myself, so I’m fine,” he said with a laugh.

While a big retirement party is planned, it’s just the work of running the organization that Thacker has stepped down from. Johnson said she fully expects him to keep showing up and working on toy cars for as long as he can.

“This is where it will be,” she said. “That’s what he loves. This, he grew out of his passion for serving others and allowing others to serve.”

But whether he’s here or not, one thing is for sure, this repository is where learning begins.

The lessons that Thacker taught will remain for generations.

“He always said, ‘Happiness is doing something for someone else,'” Johnson said. “This is the truth.”

Alton and his wife, Cheryl, will have a retirement party on Saturday, November 5, at 10 a.m. in their warehouse at 6818 S. Airport Road in West Jordan. The Thacker family says anyone who has received a car, helped build it, or just wanted to say hi, is invited to stop.

For more information or to volunteer, you can visit their website at tinytimstoys.org.

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Ashley Moser

Ashley Moser joined KSL in January 2016. She co-hosted the KSL 5 Live at 5 with Mike Hedrick and the KSL 5 news report at 10.

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