President Trump might not have much Christmas spirit this yuletide season because of the events underway in Washington. But 30 years ago, he ended up playing Santa Claus for a group of poor youngsters in the foothills of Appalachia.
Back then, I was sheriff of Cape May County, and through TV news programs, I learned about a group of disadvantaged kids called the Wilderness Scouts of America in Blairsville, Georgia.
These children in need provided community services to the elderly while getting direction in life from their founder, a wounded Vietnam veteran and self-described “mountain man” named Harold Cornwell.
The story of the Wilderness Scouts resonated with me, once a Boy Scout and merit badge instructor. As a former police officer and sheriff, I saw many kids without values or role models get into trouble with the law. This program looked worthwhile, so I reached out to Cornwell. At first, he just asked for camping equipment and supplies. Then a week later, he told me also needed a bus to transport the kids.
A few days later my brother Drew called from Atlanta. “Jim, I just saw your name in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It says you’re getting a bus for the Wilderness Scouts in Blairsville.”
So now I had a mission. My next call was to a columnist at The Press of Atlantic City. I asked him to put out the word that we were seeking a used bus for the Wilderness Scouts.
One evening after his column appeared, my home phone rang with an unfamiliar voice at the other end of the line, asking if the sheriff was still looking for a bus. I said we were.
“Well, I have one for you.”
“Sir, who are you?”
“I’m Donald Trump, and I’ll give you a bus.”
He told me to call his senior executive of the Trump properties in Atlantic City.
Waiting for me the next day was a large, black-trimmed, air-conditioned, 48-passenger, diesel bus — one of a fleet used by the Trump organization to shuttle employees.
“Mr. Trump has only one caveat,” the executive said.
I held my breath.
“See the signs on the bus?”
Who could miss them? Boards on the front, back, and sides advertised “Trump Plaza.”
“You are not allowed to take those signs off until you turn the bus over to the Wilderness Scouts in Georgia.”
“Fair enough,” I said.
In a few days the Trump bus was packed like the proverbial can of sardines, except carrying 1,400 pounds of tents, sleeping bags, axes, and donated food.
When we drove into Blairsville, a cheering crowd of local folks and 45 Wilderness Scouts greeted us.
At the front of the welcoming party was Cornwell. Also meeting us was a retinue of local media, network television reporters, and a writer from Sports Illustrated.
Before we got off the bus, the Scouts surrounded the vehicle, clasped hands, and offered a prayer. It was a touching moment.
We returned to New Jersey on Dec. 23, just in time to celebrate the holiday with our families.
Donald Trump no doubt celebrated the cornucopia of publicity generated by his generosity — including an editorial page cartoon in a Georgia newspaper of a Christmas stocking labeled “Wilderness Scouts.” Stuffed inside the sock was a gift-wrapped bus with the tag, “From: Santa Trump."
But the greatest Christmas spirit came from Cornwell and his Scouts, who three decades later are still spreading joy for senior citizens, folks with disabilities, and other community members every day of the year.
James Plousis is a former Cape May County sheriff and U.S. Marshal for the District of New Jersey. This article is adapted from a chapter in his forthcoming memoir, “Jersey Lawman: Life on the Right Side of Crime.” Proceeds from the book go to the U.S. Marshals Survivors Benefit Fund.