Building joy

The sound of hammers being pounded against wood and sanding belts whirring were ever-present in the sawdust-filled workshop as workers toiled to produce wooden trains and rocking horses.

He signs his work, “Yendor, Defender of the Useless,” which might sound like a strange name for the man who possesses some of the same qualities of the more familiar, Jolly old elf.

But his workers weren’t elves, and the man at the helm of this rural Seymour workshop wasn’t Kris Kringle.

For the last 15 years, however, Rodney Willman has been doing his best impression of Santa Claus, producing more than a thousand wooden trains and rocking horses to give friends, family and children in need.

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“He loves it so much, this time of year, he just thinks about the kids,” said Margie, Willman’s wife of four decades.

Rodney Willman became a little misty-eyed when he talks about how it all started.

“It started with my grandson, Finn,”¬† he said. “I made him some wooden toys, and I thought how some children don’t have even those.”

He started producing wooden trains and handmade rocking horses that year.

At first, he donated the toys Jackson County Sertoma Club’s Christmas Miracle. But after a few years, that club decided packaged gifts worked better for the annual event, which provides toys to needy children in the community. Willman wasn’t set up to do with his handmade toys in his shop.

He then started giving the toys to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health around Christmastime. But after several years, the hospital had to begin hand-checking every toy given to patients. That was impossible to do because of the volume of toys that the Indianapolis hospital received each year so Willman lost another source for his finished products.

Now, he and his friends donate the toys that they make in his shop in the weeks leading up to Christmas each year to children in need closer to home.

“I have several friends that are doctors in Greenwood who work the Christmas shift, and I give them toys for some of the children if they are going to be there over Christmas,” he said.

He also gives some to Home of the Innocents, an orphanage in Louisville.

“It’s a low-key operation now,” he said. “We make around 20 sets of trains and quite a few wooden rocking horses.”

Each train set includes one engine, a coal car, a caboose and a choice of two other cars. He produces different cars each year with the help of his friends and children.

Margie Willman said some of the cars hold sentimental meaning to them, such as one with a raft from a year Rodney Willman went whitewater rafting. But often, the best memories come from the connections that he and all his helpers make after building the cars.

There are now more than 26 different train cars produced at the shop.

Children are an ever-present theme and the primary motivation for Rodney Willman and the other volunteers’ efforts.

“Friends’ and family’s kids do all of the dyeing for the trains,” he said. “I bring them out here, put down cardboard and let them dip parts in dyes. They do it for about an hour until they get bored.”

He said a single train is often culmination of more than 22 different people’s efforts.

Men whose lives are connected in abstract or distant ways came together to work at the rural Seymour workshop for hours at a time to make the toys.

“I’ve known Rodney 35 years,” said Jerry Combs, a Columbus resident and one of the volunteers. “He doesn’t like to toot his own horn, but he has cut and tooled all of the pieces we’re assembling.”

Jeff Voelz, another volunteer from Columbus, met Rodney Willman through Combs.

“Jerry asked if I might be interested, and I’m pretty good with the hands-on stuff, so I come every year to participate and have fun,” Voelz said.

The group stopped at noon for a short time to eat snack foods, pet Bob, the workshop’s cat, and joke about their other get-togethers and their love of beer and spicy foods before continuing to work again into the afternoon.

The toys are constructed from wood found around Rodney Willman’s home and the area and scraps purchased from lumber stores. But just because the wood is considered unsuitable for use lessens the final product.

“(Rodney) can make anything, but he gets the most kick out of making things like this and giving them away,” Margie Willman said. “You see the toys, and they are really nice with inlaid wood and everything. But he makes all of that by hand.”

Rodney Willman claims others do a large portion of the work, mentioning that the kids in his life dye more than 1,000 wheels and hundreds of train parts and the five or six guys come out in their free time and assemble all of the pieces to make the trains and rocking horses.

But the volunteers, who are friends of Rodney Willman, said he is being modest.

Rodney Willman does admit he makes most of the pieces, usually starting the Saturday after Thanksgiving and continuing all the way to just before Christmas.

“He’s out here 10 to 12 hours a day with Bob to keep him company. He makes all he has time for,” Margie Willman said.

At the end of the day, Rodney Willman said the group would dust the sawdust off themselves, pull the wood glue off of their hands and sit down to eat and joke about the day. But they all agree on why they’re there.

“It’s the kids,”¬†Rodney Willman said. “The kids are what keep us doing it.”