On one of Harold Pierce’s first assignments as a Salvation Army bell ringer, things were a bit slow.
So he started singing to entertain himself.
A couple told Pierce — a choir singer since age 9 — that he needed to share his wonderful voice with people passing by. So he did.
At that moment 10 years ago, Pierce became known as the Singing Bell Ringer. And he’s been singing ever since.
His voice, the ringing of bells and the red Salvation Army kettles are among the familiar annual sights and sounds of the holiday season.
The Salvation Army of Northeast Florida has more than 300 volunteers and about 50 paid bell ringers in 85 locations throughout Duval County.
They start appearing outside Publix Super Markets stores just before Veterans Day and will be outside Winn-Dixie and Wal-Mart stores after Thanksgiving.
And for the first time, they also will be at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens on Saturdays.
Last year, the Salvation Army kettle campaign raised $768,307 in Northeast Florida. In Duval County, the total was $378,897.
Funds raised through the campaign stay in the community in which they are donated.
“It is simply incredible how bits of change and dollar bills add up,” said Kelly Belich, community relations coordinator.
While there is no training program for the ringers, they do get some advice, Belich said.
“We do communicate to bell ringers the do’s and don’ts and tips on how to be engaging and effective,” she said.
Five-year bell ringer Warren McCoy has taken this message to heart.
He makes sure to greet everyone as they come out of the store, wishing them a happy holiday with a big smile.
As one of the paid ringers, he works four days a week for minimum wage during the holiday season.
McCoy has been unemployed for a long time and would do more if they would let him.
But he said he doesn’t do it for the money.
“I do it for the kids,” he said, with a smile. “I want them to be happy.”
Pierce is out there ringing, singing and carrying on lively conversations with passers-by six days a week, eight hours a day. On Tuesdays, he’s got another ministry he dedicates his time to or it would be every day.
One of his favorite locations is outside the Publix on Merrill Road. The staff and shoppers there consider him an important part of their holiday.
“You know Christmas is coming when you hear Harold’s wonderful singing as you walk across the parking lot,” said Brenda Cain.
As he was adding some money to the kettle, Don Passavanti told Pierce he missed seeing him the previous day.
Kris Peters added with a smile, “He’s just the best and he always takes my money.”
Pierce has quite a repertoire to span the holidays.
After Thanksgiving, you can ask him to sing just about any Christmas carol and he will accommodate you.
But he is adamant about not singing carols before Thanksgiving.
“I do not disrespect Thanksgiving,” said Pierce, who has been the area’s top bell ringer for the past three years. “Until then, you may get any variety of classic songs or patriotic songs.”
On Veterans Day, he focused on songs with some significance to the country, including all the verses of the songs of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force.
One recent day, he went from singing Nat King Cole to The Beatles to his personal favorite, “America the Beautiful.”
Recently a man put a few dollars into the kettle and told Pierce that two years ago he was in drug rehabilitation with the Salvation Army. Today, the man is drug-free and cares more about putting money into the kettle rather than taking it out.
Pierce has been told he’s making a difference in people’s lives because his singing makes them happy.
One shopper said her husband had been feeling a little down and he asked her to have Pierce sing something for him over the phone. And he did.
A few years ago, Pierce went to the warehouse for the Angel Tree program to see the benefits of what he does.
“The line was long. Standing there in the parking lot, I was in tears watching the faces of those parents and kids that would come out of there with the big smiles on their faces,” Pierce said as he choked up. “Oh, that was heartwarming to see where this money goes, to see all those happy faces.”
Words that almost could be lyrics to a song for Pierce to sing.