Student impressed with Fort Hays State and its toy-building tradition


By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – After landing a campus job in his area of study, Dalton Kraus already considered himself lucky. That word took on a whole new meaning for the Fort Hays State University freshman this fall.

As part of his campus job, Kraus cut out 243 wooden pigs on a computer numerical control (CNC) machine for an annual toy building event on campus.

A freshman majoring in construction management, Kraus had only heard about the Dr. Fred P. Ruda Teaming Up for Tots Day, earlier this month, which was in its 29th year. The toys, built by university and community volunteers, go to children in Ellis County – along with other items from TUFT – who otherwise might not receive Christmas gifts.

Excitement around the Department of Applied Technology grew as the toy-building day drew near. Kraus said he looked forward to the event as he cut more wooden pigs day after day.

He was even interviewed by an area television station in the week leading up to the day. Eric Deneault, assistant professor of applied technology, designed the toy, and Dr. Duane Renfrow, associate professor, made the jig for Kraus to follow while cutting out the pigs.

“My high school even shared the news, so a lot of people heard about it,” said Kraus, a 2018 graduate of Halstead High School.

Kraus soon learned that it’s hard to explain the impact of the event until a person witnesses it firsthand.

More than 100 volunteers, including entire families, gathered in the Social Cafe of the Center for Applied Technology for donuts, orange juice and coffee before everyone made their way to one of 14 stations in the wood technology room.

Once inside their workroom, the elves began sanding, putting on wheels, attaching other parts and some machine operations  as the piggy banks on wheels began to take shape.

For some, like 81-year-old Don Barton, this was old hat. It was easy to find his spot at a drill press.

Barton, who retired from FHSU in 1999 after 30 years teaching in the automotive department, could think of only one time when he missed the toy building, which has grown from about 20 volunteers the first year to 110 this year.

Barton reminisced about several of the other toys he helped build over the years as well as some of his former students.

“I taught both Fred Ruda and Kim Stewart,” Barton said.

Ruda, an FHSU alum, taught at his alma mater for nearly 40 years, the last 33 as chair of the department, before dying in an automobile accident in 2012. Stewart, current chair, graduated from FHSU in 1981 and returned to teach here in 1997.

With most of his responsibilities done, Kraus walked around the room the day of the toy building, watching in awe at the progress of the assembly lines and helping out wherever he was needed.

He said he had worked on some service projects in high school as a member of the Kansas Association for Youth – a leadership-training, service program.

“But those weren’t necessarily for kids,” he said. “This was even more meaningful, especially seeing the families that have been here multiple times.”

One such family was that of Carla Schmeidler, the younger sister of Rachel Harman, senior administrative assistant for the Applied Technology Department.

Schmeidler brought all four of her children, ages 5 to 15, from their home in Victoria to help for a second straight year.

“Every year we always do a calendar of things to do during the Advent season, and this was one event,” Schmeidler said. “The kids all enjoyed doing it, so we decided to come back this year.”

Even 5-year-old Brady Schmeidler was kept busy as he ran parts from station to station.

It was a family affair for several.

Coincidentally, Barton’s daughter, Shauna Zweifel, is the chairperson for TUFT, which delivered the toys to the Community Assistance Center for pick up.

After the toy building, Zweifel and other volunteers prepared them for delivery, along with other gifts from Angel Trees at four locations in Hays.

She was first introduced to the event as a youngster when her dad taught at FHSU.

“This is such a neat community event,” Zweifel said. “The volunteers are amazing.”

Throughout the week after the toy building, Kraus lined up the pigs on one large table and dropped eight nickels into each one.

He said it’s a Christmas he won’t soon forget.

“This was pretty awesome,” Kraus said. “You can tell it means something to the volunteers, coming back each year.”


Cutline: Fort Hays State University freshman Dalton Kraus keeps an eye on the computer that controls the CNC router while cutting wooden shapes for the annual Dr. Fred P. Ruda Teaming Up for Tots toy building event earlier this month at Fort Hays State University. Photo by Diane Gasper-O’Brien


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