Books and Bears Bids Farewell to Its Father Christmas

Retiring administrator Donald Cole attends his 21st and final toy distribution for employee families

Donald Cole smiles as he takes photographs on his personal camera Friday at the Books and Bears distribution of toys for employees’ families. Cole, who co-founded the event and has emceed for the past 20 years, is retiring in January 2019. Photo by Megan Wolfe / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Twenty-one years ago, Donald Cole volunteered to emcee the first Books and Bears program at the University of Mississippi. Each second Friday in December since, the associate provost and associate professor of mathematics has been “Father Christmas” to Facilities Management Department employees gathered to collect free gifts for their children and grandchildren.

The occasion was joyous, as usual, but smiles mingled with tears Friday (Dec. 14) as Cole, who retires Jan. 15, 2019, attended the event for his last time.

Underneath festive lighting and with seasonal music playing in the background, UM employees gathered in Fulton Chapel for the distribution. The floor area in front of the stage was filled with books to the left, bears to the right and toys front and center.

“Standing before this distinguished crowd gives me great pleasure, because they consist of friends and colleagues of a lifetime,” Cole said.

Sponsored by the campus Black Faculty and Staff Organization, the charitable event annually distributes hundreds of new teddy bears, children’s books and toys donated by Ole Miss faculty, staff, students and alumni during the last three weeks of the fall semester. This year, the number of presents donated reached a new record.

Without a doubt, there has been a number of most fulfilling times,” Cole said. “They have occurred when so many others joined the Book and Bears team to make this event happen. They have occurred when a department or unit accepted the challenge to optimize their giving far beyond the normal expectations.

A Black Faculty and Staff Organization volunteer passed dolls to two happy Books and Bears recipients. Photo by Megan Wolfe / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“It occurs every time I sit back and watch the final set-up of thousands of dollars of gifts donated in love by hundreds of individuals – many of whom could easily use the gifts themselves.”

Cole, along with Janice Murray, associate dean of liberal arts and professor of art, organized the first Books and Bears in 1997 in response to what they saw as a need to help custodial staff provide Christmas gifts to their children. Spread by word-of-mouth only, the initial response to the call for donations was overwhelming.

“We wanted the staff’s children to have the books for literary development and the bears for nurturing purposes,” Murray said. “People have been responding generously ever since. Somehow, there’s always been enough so no one left empty-handed. It’s truly amazing.”

Cole agreed.

“There has not been one single year in the 20-plus years of Books and Bears there have not been ample gifts donated to accommodate every single attendee of the program,” he said.

Black Faculty and Staff Organization members expressed their appreciation to Cole for his continuing leadership and assistance in obtaining toys and books for the children.

“Dr. Cole has aided the building of generations,” said Jacqueline Certion, assistant director of the FASTrack Program in the College of Liberal Arts. “I cannot thank him enough for his guidance as a professional at the university and as to how to as help better mankind.

“He is the truest example of a servant leader. I thank him for taking me under wings and then trusting me to fly.”

Cole summed up his experience with the program.

“Books and Bears is more than an event – it’s a spirit,” Cole said. “A spirit that will continue long beyond you and me. Its characters will change. Its format will vary. Perhaps its name might be altered, but its spirit will remain.”

The stage in front of Fulton Chapel was loaded with book, bears and toys awaiting new owners during the 21st annual Books and Bears event. Photo by Megan Wolfe / Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services