A slicing, 20-mph wind and a temperature falling into the 30s made many a shopper dip their head determinedly against the cold and trudge onward with a grimace.
Until they heard the booming, a capella voice of local Southern gospel singer and WYGS Radio deejay Jim Hutson, and smiled warmly.
Silver bells, silver bells
It’s Christmas time in the city.
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He sang and rang a golden bell instead, the classic one that heralds The Salvation Army’s spirit of giving for the less fortunate. Hutson serves among 18 volunteer bell ringers — more are needed — during the church and social service agency’s annual 2016 Red Kettle Campaign running through Dec. 24.
It marks a time when a not-so-silent night is a good thing.
Hutson, 48, rings for two hours each Tuesday, usually with his two granddaughters. For this night, in front of the Kroger Marketplace store, Hutson stood alone, in jeans, sneakers and one bright blue glove, which looked especially apropos when he crooned “Blue Christmas.”
“My other hand stays warm from moving constantly (with the bell),” he said.
He began volunteering weekly at the kettles with wife Mary in 2012 when their son, Robert Hutson, was deployed overseas. They wanted to channel their family concern toward compassion for others.
At many kettle locations in years past, ringers — especially the silent ones — might go 15 minutes or more with no one stopping or even looking directly at them. But here, nearly every few seconds, they stopped — in the name of love.
Love for their fellow man, perhaps. Love for the season or the savior, for some.
And love for Hutson’s voice and singing.
Shopper Misty Lang said so.
Decked in fitness gear and a headband and moving energetically even with a full cart, Lang probably could have sprinted past him more easily than others.
“But you’re a great singer,” she said, beaming as she talked to Hutson and dug $5 in change from her purse after joking that her teen children spent the rest of her money. “That caught my attention.
“I think it takes a lot for someone to stand out here and sing.”
The annual fundraising effort kicked off Nov. 12 — the earliest start in the past several years locally.
The local goal stands at $115,000 — money to be used for expenses for the ministry and social service’s food pantry, for utilities for the struggling, summer camp for youth, after-school programs and a variety of other projects for the 2017 calendar year.
Capt. Alan Sladek, a leader of the local Salvation Army outreach, mentioned just before Hutson’s shift that warm November and December weather has hurt donations in recent years. His theory has long been that holiday giving never really kicks in until the temperature or the snow drops — and reminds people of Christmas.
“So we’re hoping for a little snow,” Sladek said.
And more volunteers, especially those willing to ring more than once during the season.
“It means everything to us,” Sladek said. “It really is such a blessing.”
Shopper John Bundick would agree.
“Grocery shopping can be like drudgery,” Bundick said. “But when you can hear a guy like him (Hutson), you realize, ‘Hey — this isn’t so bad.”
In fact, one female shopper who walking briskly toward the store entrance suddenly began singing along in mid-stride with Hutson’s version of “Away In a Manger.”
“That happens quite often,” Hutson said later.
In a two-hour stretch, about the only time he quit singing was to look toward donors young and old and thank them. And ask if they wanted a free candy cane from his red bowl matching his red kettle.
Although others shivered and huddled under coat hoods against the chill, he never reacted. And it never seemed to change the timbre of his voice that some residents know as one part of the nationally touring Christian group The Woodsmen.
An hour into his volunteer duty, in fact, his vocals seemed to get stronger. As he crooned the crescendo chorus to “O Holy Night,” a shopper just getting out of her car about 50 yards away suddenly whirled her head sharply to investigate the source of the echoing song.
A few minutes later, a walk to the furthest edge of the Kroger parking lot proved that, even amid passing National Road traffic, Hutson’s songs could be clearly heard as something of a Christmas clarion. Plus, his tunes apparently impacted another Salvation Army volunteer group at the store’s opposite entrance.
Initially, several young women merely chatted as they rang at the store’s southern entrance. Later, they too, began caroling, though with a measure of timidity.
“You’ve got to find a way to get people’s attention,” Hutson said. “Otherwise, they’re busy, and most are going to walk right on by.”
By his shift’s end, he had collected $198.75. Organizers agree such a total is something of a ringing endorsement of the agency’s work.
You can help the Salvation Army by volunteering to ring a bell at one of its locations throughout the Columbus area, includes outlying areas such as the Edinburgh Premium Outlets through Dec. 24.
Organizers are asking volunteers to consider a shift of a minimum of two hours.
People can sign up for shifts at registertoring.com.
Here are major Salvation Army kettle locations open Mondays through Saturdays through Dec. 24:
- Edinburgh Premium Outlets, 11622 NE Executive Drive near Edinburgh.
- Hobby Lobby, Clifty Crossing Shopping Center, 1149 N. National Road, Columbus
- Kroger Marketplace, 3060 N. National Road, Columbus
- Rural King, 2985 N. National Road, Columbus
- Sam’s Club, 2715 Merchant Mile, Columbus
- Walmart, 735 Whitfield Drive and 2025 Merchant Mile, Columbus
Donors also can give by sending a check to the local office at 2525 Illinois St. in Columbus. It also is accepting donations by mail to P.O. Box 807, Columbus, IN 47202.