Epilogue: Robert Loring, the head elf, never stopped worrying about others

Robert Loring, 75, directed Toys for Tots in east Pasco for 17 years
Published June 25

Robert Loring struck some people as a worrier.

Every year, he worried there wouldn’t be enough toys come Christmas morning.

The concerns were not for his own family. It was for everyone in east Pasco who might not have the financial means to put presents under the tree.

So Mr. Loring helped fill the role of Santa Claus, though he labeled himself head elf. For 17 years, he directed the United States Marines Corps Reserve’s Tots for Tots campaign for east and central Pasco until retiring after the 2015 holiday season.

Mr. Loring was a prolific collaborator, inviting local government agencies, retail stores, hotels, civic groups, students and private citizens to join the effort. In just his second year as director, the charity distributed 10,550 toys to 2,110 children. A decade later, the group collected and handed out 26,000 toys.

“He believed there were two types of people: People he needed to help and people who would help him help others,’’ said David West of Dade City.

Mr. Loring passed away at home on Feb. 18, a month after his 75th birthday. Friends are invited to gather for a memorial service at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 29, at Dade City Church of Christ, 14303 12th St., Dade City.

Mr. Loring’s concerns went far beyond Christmas morning. He worried about whether children had enough to eat. He worried about literacy. He worried whether kids had clean under shirts and a fresh toothbrush. Did they have proper role models?

The result was an expanded mission to include food for families, skivvies for tots, backpacks and school supplies for children and his annual think tank that he called the American Dream Congress. It brought together social agencies, school representatives and others to network and share ideas on helping kids and fighting poverty.

He was omnipresent in the village of San Antonio. He passed out popcorn and lemonade at the Halloween festival, sold hot dogs at a farmers market and rang the Salvation Army bell in front of the U.S. Postal Service branch there. He never missed a Memorial Day or Veteran's Day remembrance.

A native of New Albany, Ind., he moved to south Florida as a youth. He joined the Marine Corps’ reserves out of high school, but social activism became his calling. He joined Students for Immediate Social Change, and later, the Cultural Human Interaction Center, founded at Florida International University by Dr. Marvin Dunn, that advocated for racial tolerance and other social causes. Mr. Loring graduated from FIU in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and continued taking graduate-level courses for the next half-dozen years.

An inheritance allowed him to focus on social work, rather than holding down a 9-to-5 job, but a serious vehicle accident interrupted his career, leaving him hospitalized for weeks and temporarily disabled with multiple broken bones.

He and his wife, Claudia, followed Mr. Loring’s only child, daughter Noelle, to Pasco County in the mid-1990s. Noelle was a student at the University of South Florida, living in Dade City. Mr. Loring fell in love with east Pasco’s rolling hills and remote locales. It reminded him of Rising Sun, Ind., where his grandfather had lived.

A few years later, the toy bug bit him, and Mr. Loring, a guy who bit his fingernails, made east Pasco’s children the focus of his worries for the next 17 years. The outpouring of support humbled the ex-Marine.

"I am continually stunned,'' Mr. Loring once told a Tampa Bay Times journalist, "by the generosity and love I receive from this community.''

That was in 2011, during the successful toy distribution in Land O’ Lakes. As might be expected, Mr. Loring acknowledged he already was thinking -- and worrying -- about the following year’s distribution that was 51 weeks away.

Post-retirement, Mr. Loring apparently didn’t want others to worry about him, even after a diagnosis of throat cancer. In February, he and his wife, Claudia, took their own lives in their rural Wesley Chapel home. Both had lived in pain, said Noelle Loring. A neighbor discovered them Feb. 18.

Noelle Loring, 49, reflected on the way her father lived.

“I think he was just a natural giver,’’ she said “He received a lot, so he gave a lot. It was just his nature.’’

Contact C.T. Bowen at ctbowen@tampabay.com or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.

The national suicide prevention lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

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