When Bob Tretheway passes, it will be "with cookies in my mouth and ice cream in my hands."
"I've already dictated it," the longtime leader of Christmas Unlimited said Thursday from his hospice bed at Penrose Hospital. It's the place where he says he'll end his years-long battle with congestive heart disease.
"You come to a certain point where it happens," said Tretheway, 69, in a cheery voice belying the gravity of his condition. "We accept it."
As the face of Christmas Unlimited for 26 years, mostly as executive director, Tretheway became Colorado Springs' unofficial Santa Claus.
The organization, started in 1923 by four women from the southwest part of town, went through many ups and down over the decades, changing hands nearly a dozen times before Tretheway took over as president in 1991.
At the time, the group was "on the ropes" and basically bankrupt, he said. Things were so desperate, Tretheway talked of painting cardboard boxes into doll houses to be able to give children something to enjoy Christmas morning.
Rather than closing the nonprofit, Tretheway helped introduce new fundraisers and toy drives to dig it out of debt.
Those efforts since have been replaced by year-round collections, and the number of children served has been scaled back since the early 2000s, when the group regularly helped more than 10,000 children have happier Christmases.
Giving "was a core to (Tretheway's) being," said Jon Severson, founder of Colorado Springs Young Professionals, in a Facebook post. He'd partnered with Tretheway on toy drives for 11 years.
"He just worked hard every day so that come Christmastime, 12,000 kids in Colorado Springs who may not have toys any other way would," Severson wrote on Facebook.
Christmas Unlimited still is considered one of the state's largest nonprofit toy distributors, boasting on its website, "There is no other program like it!"
Tretheway says not to "rattle that cage too loud."
"It was an organization effort, not a Bob effort," he said. "We gathered ourselves together to serve the community, and we've been strong ever since."
And Christmas Unlimited will continue to support the area's needy children without him, Tretheway said. As if offering proof, he said staff and volunteers Thursday were passing out school supplies to area children as a part of their Operation Back to School drive.
"That's what Christmas Unlimited was about and will continue to be about," Tretheway said. "We will not give up."
Christmas Unlimited is more than giving toys, though, he stressed. It is a safe place for kids to "learn to give of themselves" and volunteer.
Grown up now, some of those volunteers were among the first to arrive at Tretheway's bedside, returning the kindness he always showed them.
Meghan Connolly, 23, described Tretheway as "a pillar in the foundation of who I am today." The two met when Connolly was 11, she said, and he's remained "extended family," always there to celebrate her triumphs, such as turning 16, getting a driver's license and earning her high school diploma.
"He didn't have to do any of it," Connolly said. "He's an absolutely amazing human being, and you won't find anyone like him again in this lifetime."
When DA Minard, 22, met the woman who would become his wife, it was Tretheway he was most eager for her to meet. He'd grown close to his Christmas Unlimited mentor since meeting in 2011 while Minard was in foster care.
Tretheway married the couple in 2015.
"He was always there when we needed him," said DA's wife, Cassandra Minard.
Tretheway said he will be the second Christmas Unlimited leader to die of heart failure this year. Former group President Mike Hepler died at 62 in March. Hepler had been on the Christmas Unlimited board since 1996.
George Noble has taken the helm as executive director.
Aside from his charity work, Tretheway is also known for introducing Colorado Springs to table tennis. He was the national director of the U.S. Table Tennis Association for five years and was instrumental in starting a resident training program in Colorado Springs to train U.S. Olympic athletes.
One of his students, two-time Olympian Diana Gee, credits Tretheway with launching her career. She never medaled but had success in women's singles and doubles categories and ranked among the top in the nation during the 1988 and 1992 games.
But that's not why she most appreciates Tretheway.
"He acted like a second dad," Gee said. "He was such a great inspiration and supporter."
In spite of his at times tiring string of visitors, Tretheway said the door is still open for anyone wanting to see him in the Pikes Peak Hospice & Palliative Care unit, room 608. "Come on up and say hi," he encouraged.
Tretheway shies away from accepting credit for any of his accomplishments, but family and friends insist on giving credit where it's due - so much so that they filled six typed pages trying to capture them all.
Surprisingly, Tretheway's role at Christmas Unlimited is listed last, but it arguably has left an indelible impression on the Colorado Springs community.
When the nonprofit began, The Gazette-Telegraph (now The Gazette) featured an article that led with a poem written by the reporter, at the time befitting the all-women group.
Today the verse needs amending to recognize the contributions of men such as Tretheway, who have kept Christmas Unlimited's mission alive:
"Givers and getters and old St. Nick letters,
And all the Christmastide causes;
Here's to the painters, the stitchers, repairers,
The (men and) women who play Santa Clauses."
Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362
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