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Toy Fund donations remember a larger-than-life Gazette character, former sports editor Milt Cole

For two of his sportswriters, giving to the Toy Fund is a way to remember Cole’s larger larger-than-life personality, the fun he brought to those parties and the role he had in advancing their careers. The Gazette-sponsored fund helps area families in need purchase holiday gifts for their children. The goal this year is $80,000. As of Wednesday, $15,497.90 had been collected.

“I’ve always thought of Milt as the person who gave me my start in the business in the area,” said David Perlmutter of Shutesbury, major gifts officer in the Office of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The Gazette was a fabulous place to work.”

Perlmutter had just graduated from college and working as a stringer at the Hartford Courant when Cole hired him as a sport reporter in the mid-1980s. Perlmutter moved to the business side of the Gazette’s operations and worked in various roles there until leaving to take the UMass position earlier this year.

“That was the start of a good life in Northampton,” Perlmutter said of being hired by Cole. “Everything professionally I’ve had stems from that.”

Jim Degnim came to the Gazette in 1981 from the Westfield Evening News. He, too, credits Cole with giving him his big break, saying he felt like he was heading off to The New York Times.

“I was just so thrilled to get a job at the Gazette,” said Degnim, who now lives in Rochester, Minn.

“Milt was such a warm, unique person. This is a little way to say I remember Milt,” Degnim said of his Toy Fund donation. “It always brings a smile to my face when I think about him.”

Cole was 69 when he died in 1997, 28 years after arriving at the Gazette as the news editor and 26 years after taking the reins of the sports department. A native of Medford, he had a distinctive Boston accent and a wit that Perlmutter said made his yearly monologue at the company’s holiday party a not-to-be-missed tradition for Gazette employees.

“He was a really lively, entertaining guy,” Perlmutter said.

Cole would craft a script from notes he had taken throughout the year about goings-on in the newsroom.

“It wasn’t a Christmas party without Milt’s monologue. It tiptoed along the edge of propriety,” Degnim said.

Perlmutter remembers one occasion when he was speaking to his soon-to-be wife, Colleen Kelley, on the phone at work. She told him she loved him, and his response was to quietly say that he liked her, too. That led to inevitable teasing from Cole.

“It was a roast of everybody else, and he was good at it,” Perlmutter said of Cole’s stories at the annual holiday parties.

Lou Groccia, managing editor for production at the Gazette, said it doesn’t surprise him that former employees would give to the Toy Fund because of their affection for Cole.

“This time of year, I’m always reminded of Milt playing Santa at our annual Christmas Toy Fund raffle,” Groccia said.

“I always felt we all enjoyed Milt’s comments even more than whatever the raffle prize was that we won,” he added. “It was like a warm glow that enveloped us.”

The raffle tradition continues, Groccia said.

Named after a former business manager at the newspaper, the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund began in 1933 to help needy families during the Great Depression. Today, it distributes certificates worth $40 for children aged 1 to 14 that can be redeemed at participating stores for gifts.

The Toy Fund is open to families living in any Hampshire County community except Ware, or in the southern Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Shutesbury and Leverett.

Berkshire Children and Families in Hadley verifies applicants’ income eligibility. Most families who receive assistance are referred by social service agencies. The Gazette covers the costs of administering the fund.

Participating stores this year include A2Z Science and Learning Store, Northampton; Deals & Steals, Northampton; Faces, Northampton; F.J. Rogers, Florence; JCPenney, Hadley; Mountain Goat, Northampton; The Toy Box, Amherst; Wilson’s Department Store, Greenfield; and Target, Hadley.

Donations to the Toy Fund may be made online at toyfund.gazettenet.com, or dropped off at or mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 115 Conz St., Northampton, MA 01060, or Gazette offices at 67 Main St., Easthampton, or 9 East Pleasant St., Amherst. Checks should be made payable to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.

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