Tim Pruett figures he was 7 when his parents’ marriage fell apart and he moved from Oklahoma to Austin with his mother, two older brothers and younger sister.
His grandmother — his mother’s mother — was here, and her church had a house where the family stayed for a couple of years.
His mother, then Connie Pruett, had never worked before the split and had married at 15. She eventually found work at a children’s apparel shop.
This was the early ’70s. Operation Blue Santa — which at the time was a handful of Austin cops handing out Christmas presents to needy families out of their squad cars — was maybe a year or two into its existence.
“She did provide for us as much as she could,” Pruett said of his mother. “We were basically on welfare, food stamps.”
These days Pruett, 47, is a commander with the Austin Police Department in the Office of Community Liaison overseeing, among other things, Blue Santa, which this month will deliver toys and meals to some 3,800 families in Austin. Applications typically run about 10,000. As when he was a boy, the need exceeds the capacity to meet it.
After a couple of years in the church’s house, the family moved to an apartment on Oltorf Street across from Travis High School. Then Pruett’s mother remarried and they moved again to 45th Street. Having an uncle in California who was a cop, Pruett said he was always interested in a career in law enforcement, especially after a police ride-along in high school. He got a degree in criminal justice from what is now Texas State University, working at a pizza parlour and United Parcel Service all through school, graduating in 1988 and joining the Police Department in 1991.
After more than two decades with the department, Pruett was promoted in January to commander and now oversees the charity of which he and his family were once beneficiaries.
Not that he has been far from Blue Santa before now. He’s long taken his son and daughter along on drop-off days, which this year is Dec. 14. The first time he took his daughter she was about 6, even younger than he was when his family came to town. (Daughter and son are now 15 and 10, respectively.)
“I remember how it affected me,” he said. “I remember being in that position. It’s a memory that resonates “a lot more for my children,” he said, “for them to understand what we went through as kids.
“The kids are always excited,” he said. “It goes along with police work. Most of us got into this to help people.”
Police officials have said that Operation Blue Santa has been “picking up the slack” left behind by the defunct Christmas Bureau of Austin and Travis County, which for 25 years had collaborated with the Police Department on the effort. The nonprofit was ordered to close last year after it had been accused of illegally soliciting charitable donations and misappropriating those funds. In October, its director was sentenced to four years in prison for theft from the nonprofit.
“The need is real and the need is great,” Police Chief Art Acevedo said this fall in asking the public adopt a family to fulfill their wish list or to donate money or unopened and unwrapped toys.
Pruett said doesn’t remember what he got for a present that year decades ago, or even whether Blue Santa came one year or two. It doesn’t really matter.
“I just remember being happy,” he said.
Correction: This article has been corrected to indicate the Blue Santa program will make its toy and meal deliveries this month.
How to donate
For information about donating to Operating Blue Santa by mail or online, go to www.bluesanta.org/donate/donate.htm