Mary Sauter is rich in good intentions, and little else. She never had children of her own. She's not married. But each year Mary fills a 7,000-square-foot warehouse with gifts that light up little faces.
Tired of wishes and empty dreams, the retired schoolteacher from Albia, Iowa, started recycling cans to buy things for kids in need. Each year she spends about $10,000 of her savings, plus another $20,000 she earns working concession stands at Albia athletic events and tutoring students after school.
Is that all? No, she also takes care of her 100-year-old father. She brought Herb Sauter into her home after he started going blind. Herb pondered that a moment and then told me: “I had no idea what might have become of me. I think she's wonderful.”
Mary took him in as he once did her, when she was just 4 years old, left in an Italian orphanage by a mother who could no longer take care of her. Herb was 44 at the time. He had already adopted two boys, but decided he had love enough for one more.
He brought something to put the little girl at ease. "I just held it out, and she didn't understand English, of course. But she understood Teddy Bear!"
Mary wouldn't put it down for fear it might be stolen. Fifty-six years later, the well-loved old bear is still by her side.
In fact, childhood toys still surround Mary, only now they're for other children. As she shopped for gifts for Albia's kids, she recalled still being a kid herself when she came to the realization that “we had things because Mom and Dad didn't. They never took trips. Seldom ate out.”
But they did teach her to hunt for bargains. “That’s only 30 percent off,” Mary said, checking a price tag. “We don’t want that.” Ninety percent off lets her clothe 500 kids.
Clothes instead of toys
One of them, 4-year-old Abbey Smith, twirls in the new coat Mary brought and stamps her feet. “I’m going to tell my mommy that Mary gave these boots to me.”
“I used to buy mostly toys,” Mary said. “But since the recession, a lot of kids are asking for clothes.”
Others in Abbey’s class at Albia’s Head Start eye the pile of jackets. “I always leave on the price tags because some of them may not get many new clothes,” Mary confided.
Behind every sweet face, Mary sees a tale of hardship and endurance — and parents struggling to survive. “They're working very hard. Very hard, but they're barely making ends meet because they're making just above minimum wage."
That’s why Mary is as constant as their need. She’s been quietly doing this for nearly a quarter of a century.
"Did I put those on the wrong feet?” Mary laughed, slipping a boot on Katelyn Castillo. “You can tell I'm no mother!” Raymond Ostermyer flaps his arms to show her the fit of his new camouflage hunting jacket, then circles them above his head. “Now I can make a snow angel,” he grins.
But friends say Albia already has an angel: Mary, whose magnetic personality attracts the best from people. She enlists former students and their parents to link each gift to just the right child.
Katie Della Vedova grew up to be a teacher, too. Watching Mary churning around the warehouse, she turned to say: “She's made her place in heaven. She really has.”
Despite a small army of friends who help out, what Mary does is still mostly secret. She rarely talks about what she's done. What she's done speaks for itself.
Twenty years ago, after her husband died in a car wreck, a widow with three kids under 8 found gifts at her front door. Linda Miholovich never knew who left them, until Mary hired her to help take care of Herb. One day Mary mentioned she used to wrap gifts in newspaper comics.
Linda turned and looked at her, wide-eyed: “That was you?” The daughter of the man she was nursing had secretly sent her children gifts during the darkest time of their lives.
“Oh, my God, I need more carts!” Mary laughed as she pushed two of them piled high with purchases. An army of friends lined up behind her, shoving their own carts toward the checkout stand. “Please take it!” Mary prayed as she swiped her credit card.
A lot of us buy gifts for the less fortunate during holidays. Mary Sauter shops sales year round, practically nonstop.
“There’s no such thing as seasons,” she said with a smile. “It’s all one huge season.”
She believes there may be no limit to what you can do — if you don’t mind who gets the credit.
Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by .