Faces in the Crowd: Jan Brandon

December 27, 2018

By Gene Bodnar

Andy Coulson, an acquaintance of mine in the Clare County Historical Society, sent me an e-mail recommending that I interview Jan Brandon, a lady who spent at least 36 years as an Assistant Coordinator for the Toys for Tots program.  Andy kindly arranged the appointment time.

Jan Brandon

Jan Brandon

Jan Brandon was born in Lansing in 1940.  She attended Haslett Public School in Haslett, Michigan, near Lake Lansing.  She did not have a happy childhood; in fact, she and her 10 brothers and sisters lived in poverty and were subject to parental insobriety.  Toys were unknown to her or her siblings; in fact, Jan says she never even owned a doll until she was 19 years old.

Having completed the 8th grade, and having saved $21, she decided to run away from home.  She had no idea where she was going, but she knew her present life had become intolerable.  Any place but home would suit her well.  At the bus terminal, she saw a bus going to Clare, so she bought a ticket, boarded that bus not knowing a thing about Clare, and arrived here, where she remains to this day.

Quickly establishing herself in Clare, she worked as a carhop at Shaffer’s Dairy Bar and Restaurant – a job she held throughout her high school years.  She attended Clare High School, graduating in 1958.  She remembers a lot of “hard studying” in school, while also holding a job.

In 1959, she married Gary Brown who worked for the Road Commission.  They have two sons and a daughter.  Cindy, who lives in Farwell; Jeff, who works for the Hatamachi factory; and Rob, who works for a Cable TV company.

Jan worked for a number of different restaurants as a server, including Town & Country Lounge and the Doherty Hotel, where she was in charge of banquets.  She also bought Jim’s Coachlight from Jim Becknell, and changed its name to Jan’s Coachlight.

Jan divorced her first husband.  In 1976, she married Dale Brandon.  He was present throughout most of this interview, listening intently.  At one point, he said, “I am very proud of this woman!”

In the 1980s, Don Holbrook became the owner of the Big Boy Restaurant in Clare.  Don was a long-time Court of Appeals Judge in Clare County.  He hired Jan as the Manager of the restaurant, a position she held for more than a decade.  She is proud of the fact that the Clare Big Boy was #1 in sales in nine countries, even to having won trophies for most of those years.  She was responsible for keeping it a top-rated restaurant, even to the point of creating the Jade Room, which was a room dedicated to serving disabled patrons.

Jan was also responsible for designing the interior of the Holiday Inn in Clare.

In addition, she participated in the creation of a float for the annual Irish Festival that represented Big Boy and Holiday Inn jointly.

In about 1982, Jan began volunteering with Dick Barz, a Staff Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, who ran the Toys for Tots program in Clare and Isabella counties.  The program distributes toys to children whose parents cannot afford to buy them gifts for Christmas.  The mission of the program, which was founded in 1947 by the Marine Corps Reserve, is to collect new, unwrapped toys and distribute them as Christmas gifts to needy children in the community in which the campaign is conducted.  It gives a message of hope to less fortunate youngsters that will assist them in becoming responsible, productive, and patriotic citizens.

One of Jan Brandon's many awards.

One of Jan Brandon’s many awards.

Jan was made Assistant Coordinator of the program.  As Assistant Coordinator, her primary function is to raise money to buy toys.  She remembers one outstanding occasion involving the owner of the Morbark, Inc. in Mt. Pleasant.

About 10 years ago, she approached the owner, explaining how the program was requesting donations, and describing the happiness it would bring to less fortunate children.  With little hesitation, the owner handed her a check.  She was astounded, to say the least, when she saw that the check was written in the amount of $10,000.  God bless him!

In order for children to be eligible to receive toys in the program, certain requirements must be met.  Family income must be below a certain amount; birth certificates of each child must be seen; and identification of the parents is also required.  When each of these requirements is met, each child receives three toys.

Jan remembers that a couple came with their 3 children, but she had a feeling that there was something suspicious about them but couldn’t put her finger on it.  The children were given 3 toys each – a considerable cost.  As they were leaving, Jan decided to follow them in her car – on the sly, of course.  Where did they go?  Directly to a Meijer’s parking lot.  Following them into the store as they were carrying all the toys with them, she watched them go to the refund counter, where they presented all of the toys for a refund.  Jan then called the police while they waited for the completion of the transaction.  The police arrived quickly and arrested them before they exited the store.

As a result of this incident, the identification requirements were implemented.  Furthermore, the bar codes on all toys are scratched off; stores do not provide refunds on mutilated bar codes.

This year, the Toys for Tots program began last August with the arrival of the Harley Davidson Bikers at Gateway Lanes who brought toys and cash donations.  Jan says that they are the largest contributors to the program every year.  In return, the Bikers are furnished pizzas from Buccilli’s, donuts from Cops & Donuts, and bottled water and soft drinks from Gateway Lanes.

Jan says that Lucinda Clark, Toys for Tots coordinator in Clare and Isabella counties, deserves much of the credit for the program’s success.  Jan also wishes to express deep heart-felt thanks to all of the many businesses and people who participate in the program, and have made the program an enormous success.

Jan said that she thoroughly enjoyed traveling to Washington, D.C. and Quantico back in the 1980s, where she spent several days learning how to be an assistant coordinator for Toys for Tots.

From 1985 to 1989, Jan and Dale went on an “on-the-road tour” to sing country music.  They made appearances in Nashville with a band at the Grand Ole’ Opry, performing in the same shows with such stars as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. They got to meet numerous stars in the world of country music.  They recorded numerous songs as well, with their most successful song being “I Need You to Love Me,” which was written to Dale himself.  Jan says it was one of the most memorable experiences of their lives.

She still loves helping people.  She looks forward to the summer picnic at Meadows Park, where there is a band, drawings for prizes, and much camaraderie.

Jan Brandon is retiring from the Toys for Tots program this year.  For nearly four decades she has made thousands of precious children smile at Christmas.  As a result, she herself has had richer Christmases than most of us could ever hope for.  It is with gratitude, respect, and admiration that I write this article and join the Clare County Review in tribute to a fine lady who has lighted up the smiling faces of children far more than a million lights could do.  It is the kind of light show that angels line up to see.

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