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The hand that rings the bell

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published December 14, 2005


[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Mike Bowen, a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, rings six days a week, 10 hours a day. He uses a power scooter because of cerebral palsy and is trying to beat last year's fundraising goal of $6,000. Bowen was collecting in front of a Publix supermarket on N Dale Mabry Highway last week.

They are holiday fixtures greeting customers outside stores with a smile and a ring, reminding the fortunate to give to those worse off.

As people dump their change and bills into red Salvation Army kettles, few acknowledge the tollers with more than a "merry Christmas" or "happy holidays."

But when a wave of kettle robberies hit Pinellas County this month, faceless ringers became targets of what many considered unconscionable petty thefts.

These days, people are paying a little more attention to the bell ringers.

Workaholic for charity

TAMPA - Inside plastic cups in a basket on Mike Bowen's power scooter, adorned by a Tampa Bay Buccaneers flag just below the American one, stood straws, a Diet Coke, red pen, plastic fork and an electric shaver. A RadioShack radio's earphones were wrapped around the handlebars.

A garage door opener rested in a red pouch. He lives with his parents just three blocks away from the Publix on N Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood.

But Bowen, 43, needs the survival gear. He rings six days a week, 10 hours a day. If he's hungry, he sometimes buys a sandwich inside.

He remembers raising money for charity as far back as high school, first participating in games for those, like him, who have cerebral palsy - competing in events such as shot put, the 100-meter swim and the wheelchair race.

"And he hasn't stopped," his wife, Shawn, 39, said.

He raises money for the Boys & Girls Club and associations that fight Alzheimer's disease. He nudged his wife, who also has cerebral palsy, to ring in front of another Publix.

He is trying to beat last year's fundraising goal of $6,000. He thinks he raises nearly $200 a day, and has totaled $100,000 for charity over the years.

In 2000, he proposed to his wife over a chicken and steak dinner at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

"I won a trip," he explained. "I raised so much money for Alzheimer's."

The Salvation Army pays him $6.15 an hour to ring. But he said it's the conversation that keeps him on the job.

"Thank you," he tells a donor. "Have a good day."

Last year, Salvation Army volunteers gave him three days off when they wanted a turn tolling. Another break is coming up.

"I kind of don't want that," he said.

"He's a workaholic," Shawn said.

"I like having a regular job," Mike said.

"Jesus is my boss'

ST. PETERSBURG - The man ringing the bell in front of the Publix at 1700 34th St. N in St. Petersburg has a name that rings, too.

"William Bell," he said.

William Bell?

"Amen," he said. "I've been preaching the gospel 21 years."

But he's not a pastor. Bell, 65, said he evangelizes and teaches at the retirement center where he lives.

"Wherever the Lord needs it," he said, "that's where I am."

He said the Lord told him he was needed here.

"I wasn't going to do it, but the Lord said there's souls to be won right here," Bell said. "I brought five souls to the Lord right here."

He pointed near the entrance where bottled water was stacked not far from the sliding doors. Once, he said, he prayed for an elderly woman's hip socket.

She had tears in her eyes going into the store. She told him she felt better coming out, he said.

"I'm just God's instrument," he said. "He gets all the glory."

He tells people the money in the kettle is the Lord's. Good luck taking it.

"I've got two angels right there," he said, "in case anyone tries anything."

He rings most days 10:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., earning $6.15 an hour from the Salvation Army, adding to his income from Social Security.

But his black baseball cap says he works for someone else.

Jesus is my boss.

Husband and wife team

BRANDON - Edward Bang, 79, and his wife, Jeri, 77, sometimes chirp at each other like a pair of birds. They've been married 57 years.

"First of all, my wife twisted my arm," Edward said, explaining why he sat in a yellow lawn chair in front of Wal-Mart, bell in hand.

"No, I didn't," Jeri responded, seated next to him.

They attend Riverview's Resurrection Catholic Church, which volunteered to ring, recruiting church members to take shifts every two hours.

Edward and Jeri's was Tuesday. When one tired, the other rang the bell, telling donors "Merry Christmas."

"No "happy holidays,' " Jeri said. "We're Catholic."

She was dressed like a Christmas present with green bows for earrings and a red sweater for warmth. He looked like a ship captain, wearing a blue hat, brown pants and green and blue plaid shirt.

When the giving slowed, the couple chatted.

"We've got a million things we have to do," Jeri said, "so we think about that."

Edward, a meat cutter for 25 years before he retired, has lung cancer.

They're not sure how he's faring.

They have two children but no grandchildren. They enjoy watching kids stuff handfuls of nickels and pennies into the red kettle.

"Oh, look at you," Jeri tells a little girl trying to fit a crumpled dollar into a thin slot. "Isn't that sweet? Her little hands putting that in? That was adorable."

Without ringers, the Bangs said, donors might ignore the red kettle.

"It's nice to make eye contact and say "thank you' afterward," Edward said.

"I think people need a little reminder," Jeri added.

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 14, 2005, 00:13:09]


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