Red Kettle ringers
Longtime bell ringers spread cheer year after year
Salvation Army Red Kettle bell ringers, in general, are a staple in front of stores this time of year. Sometimes, the actual bell ringers are staples, too.
Both men have rung in a variety of locations, but each had one or two most frequent. For Verge, that was a Kmart store that closed earlier this year, where he rang for 25 years. For Cook, it was Target and a downtown Walgreens near The Arcade mall; at the latter, Cook joined the WSMV TV Snowbird, a popular costumed character in Nashville.
Noting how things have changed, Verge said, “The first time that I rang bells, there was no such thing as Black Friday; it was just known as Thanksgiving weekend.”
Black Friday is now one of the times Verge definitely rings. He rang as a full-time job until 2009, but for the last 12 years of that, he was also working at The Boys and Girls Club of Rutherford County. It was too much working both jobs full time, so in 2010, he negotiated with The Salvation Army to only ring outside of normal business hours; besides Black Friday, this includes weekends and Christmas Eve.
“I’ve got a rhythm of ringing the bells, a rocking motion up and down following the beat of my own drum. Everybody likes that a lot,” he said.
While Verge’s bell style brings in customers, Cook attracts them through his character, Uncle Jack. He often rings with his wife, Kate Chadwick, as Miss Kate. They are actors and use bell ringing as a chance to perform.
“You’ve only got four or five seconds to do an act, maybe 10 seconds,” Cook said of performing as a bell ringer. “It took me a year or a year and a half to get the act down to where I could communicate a whole lot in a very short period. That included the look of the character, the way he acted and saying hi to everybody.
“It’s fun getting out and helping others give of themselves,” he added. “One of the main reasons why I rung the bell for The Salvation Army for 19 years is because they can do as an organization what I could not do as an individual. The bell is simply to remind people they have a heart and they are giving to a good cause; it just reminds them it’s the season to give and count their blessings.”
Cook rings as a volunteer in part to count his blessing for The Salvation Army, which helped his father during the Korean War, when he was ill and had to be evacuated to Germany for surgery (which another charitable organization declined).
Verge, on the other hand, is a paid ringer. One of the blessings he counts is having the job, especially when he was starting out the winter after he graduated from high school. He was in a job training program at Motlow State Community College, where he learned about bell ringing and met Capt. David Peterson, who was getting The Salvation Army started in Murfreeboro.
The first four years, Verge rang at various stores in Murfreesboro, Smyrna, Franklin, Columbia and Tullahoma, ,TN. In 1991, Capt. Robert Greene took over The Salvation Army, and he often posted Verge at the Kmart he rung at for 25 years.
“Now that the store is gone, it’s going to be a great challenge to ring at another spot. I’ve been at that place for so long that everybody knows me,” said Verge, who noted that Capt. Joseph Irvin now has him back ringing at various locations, like he used to.
Also this year, he’s ringing with a professional dress code (khakis, white shirt, tie, dress shoes and a jacket without writing on it). That’s not as fancy as Cook looked in his Uncle Jack costume, though, which featured a top hat, cravat, vest and suit coat (made by his wife).
Cook rang in that outfit from Target and Walgreens to several Nashville malls to the Ryman Auditorium and Bridgestone Arena, where the Nashville Predators hockey team plays. He met many people at those places over the years and has been touched by their interactions.
“The people who actually spoke with us and threw something in the kettle are the people I remember the most. They’re one long blur of individuals, but as a combination, they equal one huge individual with a great heart.”
He added that the most generous donors he found were people who were helped by The Salvation Army.
“I’ve had more than one person tell me were it not for The Salvation Army, they would be on the streets, lost or dead. There were some that would go out and collect money for me and bring it back to the kettle, or they’d say, ‘This is all I’ve got’ and flash me a five-dollar bill. These people weren’t the best of society; they were actually brought back to society by the efforts of the Army.”
Verge has also had generous donors, including some who have brought in full jars of change they’ve saved up. He also remembers a time in 1991 at Kroger when he had to put money in a Kroger bag because the kettle was full and people were still giving.
He loves each year to see contributors who’ve grown from babies themselves into parents with kids. “People love to see me and say I make them smile,” he said. “They won’t go to anyone else’s kettle because they want to come see me.”
He encourages anyone who hasn’t signed up for bell ringing to do it. “It is a rewarding experience. There are some people out there who don’t have a Christmas at all without The Salvation Army.”