James Merrigan, a Salvation Army bell ringer, smiles while in front of Leigh Mall earlier this week. Merrigan, a retired Air Force veteran, has been a bell ringer during the holiday season in Columbus for 13 years. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
November 30, 2013 11:44:49 PM
James Merrigan's wife told him to find something to do with his time.
So the retired Air Force veteran left his Old Aberdeen Road home in Columbus and showed back up a little while later. When he did, his wife, Vicki, asked what he had found.
"Well," he said, "it's seasonal."
That was 13 years ago. He's been doing the thing he found ever since.
Each holiday season they bundle up, stand outside of stores, ring those little bells and, in a way, become part of the scenery.
This year, Salvation Army bell ringers hit the streets on Nov. 15. They'll be at it until Dec. 24.
Inside the Salvation Army's office on Main Street in Columbus, there is a big wall calender and most days listed through Christmas Eve have names scribbled into the blocks. It's how organizers keep track of who is ringing bells where and when.
This is a hectic and important time for the organization.
"This is our major fundraising drive," said Major Eric Roberts, commander for the Salvation Army of Columbus. "This is the way we support our programs year-round."
If you live in Columbus you've probably seen him.
Merrigan is 76. He has youthful eyes, though, and there's playfulness in his voice. Like most bell ringers, he has a kind word for everyone.
Outside of Leigh Mall's main entrance one day last week, he said, "God bless," to everyone who passed by during a half-hour stretch. The folks who dropped a little change into the red kettle got a "Thank you, thank you and God bless," also.
Merrigan said its typical for 15 or 20 people to pass by in a row without stopping. But he never judges.
"You don't know what someone is going through, where they might be financially," he said. "Or they might have just left a big tip in a restaurant."
Regardless, at the end of nearly every shift, Merrigan's kettle is typically full.
The money donated locally stays local.
First and foremost, it is used during the holidays.
Roberts said more than 600 children in the Golden Triangle area will receive presents from Santa Claus bought with Salvation Army resources. More than 300 families will be helped, he added.
What is left over is used through the year. Families in a pinch can get help with electric bills, clothing or food assistance.
It all starts with volunteer bell ringers and there are never too many, Roberts said.
"A person can volunteer for two hours or for 250 hours," he said. "Doesn't matter. We're happy to get all the help we can."
Merrigan went out initially because his wife of 52 years suggested he needed to get out of the house. But he has stayed a bell ringer for more than a decade, he said, because he feels it is the right thing to do.
"I told the Lord Jesus Christ I would ring the bell as long as He gave me strength," Merrigan said. "That's what I'm going to do."
One of the few requirements for bell ringers is that they stand up. This year, however, Merrigan has a pass on that.
He suffered a fall last summer while trying to change a light bulb. His back is still giving him trouble, so he is the only Salvation Army bell ringer you will see sitting down beside a red kettle.
He also has had to cut back on the length of his shifts. He used to stay at it for 10-hour shifts. This year he's doing five-hour shifts.
"It's all right," Merrigan said. "I'm still able to come out here and help out."
The Salvation Army operates in 126 countries around the world.
To find out more or learn about local volunteer opportunities, call the Salvation Army of Columbus at 662-327-5137.
William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.
2. Council terminates officer who allegedly solicited minor COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. Columbus, Brooks collaborate for Crime Prevention Task Force COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. Photos: Budweiser Clydesdales in Columbus COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. Breaking barriers in the sky: Tuskegee Airmen exhibit visits local middle schools COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY