A South Portland man who died recently has given $23,000 to the Portland Press Herald Toy Fund.

It’s one of 10 similar donations made at his bequest to local and national charities and nonprofits, according to the executor of his will. The man asked family members not to disclose his identity.

It is believed to be one of the largest individual gifts in the charity’s 70-year history.

The contribution comes at a critical time for the Toy Fund, which has experienced a steep decline in donations in recent years, said Kathleen Meade, the charity’s executive director.

“We haven’t received such a large donation in a very long time,” Meade said. “This contribution will be so helpful because donations have been lower than usual recently and we already have requests for over 2,000 kids this season.”

Founded in 1949, the Toy Fund provides toys to thousands of Maine children who might otherwise not receive holiday gifts because of hardships faced by their parents.

Supported by donations from readers and dozens of volunteers, the fund is accepting applications for help from needy families in York, Cumberland, Sagadahoc, Androscoggin, Lincoln and Knox counties. The deadline for applications is Dec. 12 and toys are distributed to parents in the days before Christmas.

From a peak of $260,000 in donations during the 2009-2010 holiday season, contributions fell to $110,334 last year. Fund directors hope the anonymous $23,000 donation will encourage others and spur contributions to rebound this season.

“It’s remarkable that this anonymous donor thought about making the holidays brighter for many Maine children in his final bequest,” said Lisa DeSisto, CEO and publisher of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and Masthead Maine.

The anonymous donor was a humble and hard-working man who cared deeply about the welfare of children and animals, according to the executor of his will. He had supported the Toy Fund in the past, but he wanted no recognition for his last and largest donation. Other charities and nonprofits that received $23,000 donations included four animal shelters, a food pantry and the American Red Cross.

Formerly the Bruce Roberts Toy Fund, the gift-giving program began in December 1949, when Matthew I. Barron was Portland’s assistant welfare director. Barron knew that many local parents were struggling financially and that many of their children wouldn’t receive Christmas presents.

Barron reached out to friend, Robert Bruce Beith, an editor at the former Portland Evening Express who wrote a news column under the pen name Bruce Roberts. The two men decided that Beith would ask his readers for donations and Barron would use the money to buy toys for children in need.

The Evening Express, a forerunner of the Press Herald, launched the effort on Dec. 9, 1949, under the headline, “What to do about it: 1,000 face Santa-less Christmas.” They raised nearly $4,000 the first year and provided gifts to more than 1,500 kids. Barron and Beith kept at it year after year, and the name Bruce Roberts became synonymous with the annual toy fund drive.

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