Utah’s own wooden car toymaker tackles new project while planning retirement

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WEST JORDAN — A Utah toy maker is hanging up his cap, making way for a new generation to take up the job.

“If you want to be happy, you do something for somebody else,” the toymaker says.

Those are the words often repeated by Alton Thacker, a man who may be the most famous toymaker in Utah’s history, and his warehouse space is where learning begins.

Not just by learning from his example but by encouraging learning.

For evidence of that, no need to look further than the dozens of volunteers sorting books and stuffing backpacks with school supplies.

Thacker’s spent decades building more than 1.4 million toy cars and giving them away for free to kids around the world. As you can imagine, doing so has been a challenge, especially when you’re running a nonprofit that continues to grow.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride. He went from losing the donations of those who paid the rent on his warehouse space, to being recognized and given prizes by Mike Rowe of TV’s “Dirty Jobs” fame, to having to pack up and move to a new space.

All the while, requests for boxes of toy cars steadily increased, and Thacker’s never been one to tell someone “No.” Even though neither he nor any of his volunteers have ever earned a paycheck.

“A happy face is worth it,” he said. “I don’t know who benefits the most. Is it the little person who gets the toy, or the old guy that comes and can see out toys all day and love it?”

But they aren’t all “old guys,” as Thacker puts it. One of his most loyal helpers is his granddaughter, Emilee Johnson.

“For me and my family, my kids love coming here and being a part of this and I don’t know what I would do without it,” Johnson said.

A volunteer at Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory in West Jordan sorts through book donations.
A volunteer at Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory in West Jordan sorts through book donations. (Photo: Raymond Boone, KSL-TV)

But on this day, the saws are silent. Instead, the volunteers are stuffing bags and sorting through mounds of used books. They’ve all been donated, thanks to a business called Discover Books.

“When they came, it was four pallets of books,” Thacker said. “Four feet high, four feet square, filled with books.”

A volunteer at Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory in West Jordan sorts through book donations.

Thacker’s nonprofit, Tiny Tim’s Toy Factory, has been working with a group called Eyes 4 Zimbabwe for over a decade, giving them tens of thousands of toy cars to hand out.

This year, that shipment will include the books and school supplies. Johnson said they’re sorely needed.

“They carry a brick with them to school so they can sit on it, do their math in the dirt, and then they carry the brick home,” she said.

For Thacker, being around the warehouse has given him purpose, even though it’s not as easy as it once was. Suffering from a stroke left him pondering what’s next.

“My memory is what’s jolted,” Thacker said.

Emilee Johnson, right, discusses the types of books they should include in backpacks slated to be sent to Zimbabwe.
Emilee Johnson, right, discusses the types of books they should include in backpacks slated to be sent to Zimbabwe. (Photo: Raymond Boone, KSL-TV)

And so, as he’s approaching his 87th birthday, Thacker’s hanging up his hat, and it’s going to take the strength of multiple family members to pick it up, including Johnson.

“What he did is going to take three of us to do now,” she said.

But don’t count Thacker out just yet.

“I get up in the morning, and I get dressed all by myself, so I’m good,” he said with a laugh.

While a big retirement party’s being planned, it’s just the work of running the organization that Thacker’s stepping down from. Johnson said she fully expects him to keep showing up and working on toy cars as long as he’s able.

“This is where he’ll be,” she said. “This is what he loves. This, he’s built out of his passion for serving others and allowing other people to serve.”

But whether he’s here or not, there’s one thing for sure, this warehouse is where learning begins.

And the lessons Thacker taught will stick around for generations.

“He always says, ‘Happiness is doing something for somebody else,'” Johnson said. “And that’s the truth.”

Alton and his wife Cheryl will both be holding a retirement party on Saturday, Nov. 5, at 10 a.m. at their warehouse at 6818 S. Airport Road in West Jordan. Thacker’s family says anyone who’s received a car, helped work on making them, or just wants to say hello is invited to stop by.

For more information or to volunteer, you can visit their website at tinytimstoys.org.

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Ashley Moser

Ashley Moser joined KSL in January 2016. She co-anchors KSL 5 Live at 5 with Mike Headrick and reports for the KSL 5 News at 10.

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