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John Hampton, a retired Marine who helped found Toys For Tots, celebrates his 103rd birthday at Deer Hill Care Home in Lafayette, Calif., Monday May 24, 2010. His daughter Clare Revelli, of San Rafael, joined the celebration with caregivers Oryze Abella (left) and Jun Chan.(Karl Mondon/Staff)

LAFAYETTE — It was a humble celebration for someone Clare Revelli calls a humble man.

A handful of caretakers and friends gathered Monday to wish John Hampton well on his 103rd birthday.

"I'm most fortunate. I don't know why I deserve this at all," the former Marine said as he stared down at one of his three birthday cakes.

"'Cause you're a good man," replied Revelli, a longtime family friend who considers Hampton a surrogate father.

She'll find little argument there, especially not from millions of underprivileged kids who have benefited from Toys for Tots, the charity Hampton helped get off the ground.

Currently a resident at the Deer Hill Care Home in Lafayette, Hampton in the late 1940s was a big part of the organization's early success.

After working at various newspapers and wire services in Texas, Louisiana and Kansas, Hampton enlisted in the Marines during World War II and was sent to the Pacific theater to code and decode encrypted messages.

When he returned, he got a job as a public information officer for the Marine Reserve training center in Los Angeles.

The Marines had a Christmas tradition of collecting toys for poor children in Chavez Ravine, and reserve Maj. Bill Hendricks, a public relations officer for Warner Bros., had an idea: Why not put a toy collection barrel outside that company's movie theaters?

They did, and they labeled it "Toys for Tots."

Hendricks enlisted Hampton to coordinate collection efforts, and Hampton put his media savvy to work in getting the word out. The Marine reserve unit ended up collecting and distributing 5,000 toys.

The next year, Toys for Tots went nationwide. Walt Disney designed the logo. The likes of John Wayne and Bob Hope would eventually become spokesmen.

In 2009, the organization distributed more than 16 million toys to more than 7 million children.

Hampton said he never expected the program to become so successful, but he hopes it continues to grow.

"It started locally and it caught on and people were interested and so it just grew up and went on from there," he said.

Hampton has always had a soft spot for children, Revelli said.

"Even though he was a great big, really big, tall 6-foot-3 Marine, and he was trained as a Marine, he just had this wonderful kindness about him, a heart of gold," she said.

After his time with the Marines, Hampton got a public relations job in Oakland. His wife, Nora, became an editor for the Oakland Tribune, and they bought a house in Orinda.

The couple had one son, Mike, who had Down syndrome and died in 2006. Nora died on Thanksgiving Day 1994.

Hampton began to suffer from dementia in early 2000, Revelli said.

As for his turning 103 — he was Deer Hill's first resident ever to reach triple digits — Revelli credits good family genes.

Whether it's the genes or his daily regimen of coffee and three chocolate bars, those who care for him at Deer Hill say they are happy to have him around.

"His story is just fascinating," said Jennifer Natsch-Jensen, a nurse supervisor with Hope Hospice. "He's just a remarkable man."

Contact Jonathan Morales at 925-943-8048. Follow him at Twitter.com/sosaysjonathan.