July 21, 2018

Meet Cordora, my favorite Christmas bell-ringer.

Cordora 2.jpg

 For many days now, she’s been ringing, ringing her Salvation Army bell. All to help others. 

As long as I can remember, I’ve seen the Salvation Army bell ringers standing by their big red kettles outside stores and at busy corners  for hours and hours soliciting nickels, quarters, and dollars.  They wish you “Merry Christmas!” And shake their bell– Ring! A! Ding!

 For me they’re part of the season. Like the Infant Jesus and Christmas trees and Santa Claus and the all-out shopping and gift-giving madness.

 I’ve dropped money into those kettles. Ring! A! Ding! “Thank you, sir,” the ringers say cheerily.  “Merry Christmas!” Ring! A! Ding!

 But I don’t remember ever saying more than just that—“Merry Christmas!”–to a bell ringer. Have you?

 This season has been different. A few days ago I met Cordora Sperling. I didn’t know her name then. She  was stationed  by the front door of the Stop & Shop Supermarket in Old Saybrook.  Just a little dumpling of a bell ringer. A jolly black lady. She kept saying hello to everybody going by. Ringing her bell. Wishing them a Merry Christmas. Smiling. Ringing.

 And people were pausing and digging for a bit of money and dropping it into her kettle. Not everybody. That’s a bell ringer’s impossible dream. But quite a few. I was impressed.

 My next time, it was evening. Dark out. The cold was snappy.  I saw her on the same spot. Same heavy jacket. Same happy Yuletide hat. Same heavy pants and shoes. She had her collar rolled up high.

 Suddenly I saw her pause her ringing and rush to help an old lady, The lady had two heavy bags. A car had pulled up and she had a hard time getting in. It was her daughter driving, I suspected.

 Cordora lent a hand, then returned to her kettle and started ringing again. Recognized me. “Hello!” she said with a big smile. She was stamping her feet to keep warm. Not easy to be standing here like this for hours.

 I approached her. “How much longer till quitting time?”

 She didn’t have to look at her watch. She knew. “An hour and a half!” She rubbed her cold hands together.

 I said to her, “We do what we have to do!”

 “Yes, for sure.” But she thought a minute. “But you know, I don’t have to do this.”

 “You don’t?”

 “No. I like doing this.”

 “You do?”

 “Yes, sir.” She patted her kettle. “This money helps a lot of people!” She didn’t stop at that. “The Salvation Army is very good. Really helps people. Lots of people. Helped us. Helped us with our fuel bill when we first came here.”

 It turns out she lives in Waterford. Works out of the Salvation Army’s New London office.  Works eight-hour shifts, with a half hour lunch break. Is dropped off by a Salvation Army bus, then picked up at the end of the day. It carries 21 ringers to locations here and there. The season is from Thanksgiving to the day before Christmas. Some ringers work shorter shifts.

 I looked carefully at her. Instinctively I felt she was a very nice person. Seemed to be enjoying herself. Smiled easily.  Eager to greet people. Was proud to be wearing the standard Salvation Army red apron and doing this work, which I considered not easy. I liked her hat. Cheery. A great touch.

 We chatted some more. Then she said, “My husband is here with me.” That surprised me. “He’s ringing over there.” And she pointed to Stop & Shop’s entrance at the other end. “We’ll have fun talking about our day!”

 I would have liked to meet him but no time. On my next visit I noticed another ringer by her side. A man, at least a foot taller, slim, white, a bit older. Who was this, I wondered.

 As I came closer, Cordora smiled at me. “Hello, sir! “ She pointed to her colleague.   She kept smiling. “He’s my husband. Paul!”

 “I love your hat,” I said to him. “Different than your wife’s. But very Christmassy!”

 It turns that it was his own hat.  Not a Salvation Army handout. He wears it whenever he ‘s ringing his bell.  He chuckled.  “Thanks. Fits right in with the season, doesn’t it?,” This was true for Cordora also.  She had chosen her own hat. “I wanted to get with it!”

 hey were chatting together like old friends.  It made me feel good to watch them.  Later she told me Paul had been a transit bus driver.  eThey’ve been married 15 years now.

 Paul gave me a smile and headed back to his post at the other end of the store.

 I asked Cordora, “Do some people ever annoy you ?”

 “No, not really. Oh, one time, a guy started preaching religion to me.  I just kept ringing my bell and he took off.  Most people are very, very nice!””


 “Yes, very generous!  The money they drop in adds up! Old people. Young people. All kinds of people. Little kids, too.” She smiled. Her eyes sparkled. “They get sent over by their mom and dad. So cute!

 “And some people are so nice to me.  They bring me a coffee.  Or a hot chocolate.” She paused her ringing…a woman was dropping in a donation. “Thank you, Ma’m! Merry Christmas!”  Quickly she began jiggling her bell.

 “Do you get to find out how much people drop in?”

 “Sometimes we get a report.  I told you there are 21 of us ringing here and there. Well, I found out I took in the most three days in a row!.  $405! $379! $387! Oh, that made me feel so good!”  And she gave her bell a triple shake.

 I am sure the location is a factor in generating lots of donations. So is the weather. And so is  the day of the week and the closeness to Christmas. And the bell ringer is a big, big factor. I could see by now why Cordora was so successful.

 I wondered how much training the volunteers get.  She told me five hours in two sessions.

 “Practical stuff.  It does help us do a good job. Like, if somebody says Merry Christmas, we say Merry Christmas back.  If they say Happy Holidays, we say Happy Holidays back. They tell us it’s very, very important to be peppy!  To get into it. To smile. To be nice to folks. I try!.” 

 I felt it all came naturally to her.

 “So what happens after Christmas? When you’re done with the kettle and the bell?”

 “Oh, that will be nice!” and she smiled at the thought. I understood. This asking, begging, soliciting (choose the word you like best) isn’t easy.

 Who wouldn’t consider it a nice change after all this standing on the pavement and trying to keep warm and ringing, ringing, ringing. Rain or shine. Even when few shoppers were coming in and out. I was sure she’d miss all this inter-action with people, too.

  She continued, “I have other things to do. I have a little business.  I like it a lot.”


 “A pet-sitting service.  Dogs, cats, birds.  I’ve got some customers. Sometimes they bring them to my house.  Sometimes I go to our house.  For an hour or two.  Sometimes a full weekend.”  She  smiled. Was obviously happy. Ring! A! Ding!

 I learned more about her. She was a college grad. Had a degree in education and psychology.  Had worked in a pre-school as a teacher and then administrator for 17 years,  Then had headed the courtesy desk at an airport for several years. Worked in customer service at Islip Airport in New York.

 She looked at her watch.  It was really dark now.  The customers were few.  She slowed down her ringing but not much. If she spotted someone, she shook it harder. “Quitting time in 15 minutes!  Paul will be coming over.”

 “Well, good night, Cordora! It’s been a lot of fun being with you! Good night to Paul, too, please!”

 I wasn’t kidding. I had really enjoyed our chatting. But standing out there for those minutes was enough for me! I hate the cold.  I wasted no time getting into my car and turning on the heater. I kept thinking of Cordora n the way home. She definitely had brightened the season for me.

 After my late supper, I turned on my computer and did a bit of research. The red kettle fund-raising started in San Francisco back in 1891.  Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee was working hard to help poor people.  Many were going hungry.  He got the wonderful idea of serving them a good dinner at Christmas. Free. For many, their best dinner of the whole year.  But where to get the money for it? 

 He had been a sailor days back in his native Liverpool. He remembered a big iron pot on a busy dock. It was well known. Passengers would throw in donations as they got off their ships. It was a tradition. He felt inspired.  He found a bright red kettle and set it up.  He put a big sign on it, “Keep it boiling!”  It worked. 

 They say he raised enough to feed a thousand people at that dinner.  Sounds high to me, but I won’t protest. Captain McFee set up his kettle again the following Christmas. His idea spread.

 In the morning I called Salvation Army in New London and spoke with Bessie Childs. She’s the office manager. She was very busy right now but answered my questions. She sounded young, and very enthusiastic. I told her what I was up to.

 “Paul and Cordora!” she told me. “They’re terrific!”

 She told me the Army spots their 21 ringers all the way down to Clinton and up to Stonington.

 “Last year our goal was $120,000 and we hit $140,000. This year our goal is  $!30,000, and we’re trying to go higher. The red-kettle money is all-important to us.”

 Considering we’re in a recession, those numbers sound impressive to me. Remember, most donations are small. Sometimes just pennies. Think of all the people donating!

 The bell-ringing goes on six days a week. Never on Sunday. That’s the Lord’s day. The Army can use more ringers.  The pay is modest. It’s the minimum, $8.25 per hour. But there are rewards beyond the money.

  The red kettle effort goes on. It’s been national for a long time. International! It raises millions every year just in our country. It provides major funding for a long list of truly helpful services to people of every imaginable background. Few questions asked. To many who are desperately needy.

 The Salvation Army is famous for this good work. I’ve never heard of a Salvation Army scandal. Have you?

 It’s these folks in red aprons standing at a corner and patiently ringing their bells who make it possible.  At times there are not enough of them. In fact, just 21 here in our big chunk of geography seems small to me.

 It’s late in the season, of course,. If you’d like to volunteer, too late this year, I’m sure. But I’ll bet the Salvation Army would welcome you next year. Keep it in mind.

One more thing: Merry Christmas to you, one and all!

~ John



  1. Patty Lange says:

    Love to read your blogs, about life in general . Nothing earth shaking or tabloid but nonetheless ever so important for everyone to stand back and take a look at ordinary life in how sometimes it can be so powerful..

    Saw you this summer in Chatham and now I am a groupie. Thank you so much John

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,
    Patty Lange

    • Thank you, Patty!
      It’s a pleasure to hear from you.
      As I remember it, you are in the real estate business.I believe sales are picking up finally. I hope the New Year brings you good listings!
      I know I am showing my age by asking the following question, but I am interested: What is a groupie?
      Happy New Year!

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