Bell ringer has kettle of tales

A half-century of greeting generous folks is good feeling

By Ashley Swanson, Columbian features news coordinator


photoSalvation Army bell ringer Chuck Mulligan, who has been volunteering for the seasonal position for about 50 years, collects donations at Fred Meyer in east Vancouver on Dec. 10.

(/The Columbian)

Charitable bells have rung here for about a century

“We’re one of the oldest organizations in the county,” said Dennis Short, a member of the Salvation Army Advisory Board.

The Vancouver Independent newspaper began mentioning the organization’s movement into Vancouver from Portland in 1887. The Vancouver chapter opened its first Salvation Army building in 1919, on Seventh and Reserve streets.

“We believe that we have been ringing the bells for over 100 years,” Short said, with about 2,500 bell ringers volunteering this year.

There are two categories for bell ringers, he said. Some are volunteers drawn from a variety of groups and organizations, including the Rotary and Lions clubs, local churches and businesses that make contributions of their time. The others are people who are paid, earning extra income for holidays along with generating revenue for the Salvation Army.

The Clark County chapter is a separate entity from the Portland Metro division, which has reported that its kettle donations are down 45 percent this year.

“We’re close to even for the year. We may be down a little bit, not as dire as Portland,” Short said.

— Ashley Swanson

photoSalvation Army bell ringer Chuck Mulligan, who has been volunteering for the seasonal position for about 50 years, collects donations at Fred Meyer in east Vancouver on Dec. 10.

(/The Columbian)

Chuck Mulligan doesn't have a secret bell-ringing technique, but after 50 years of volunteering as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, he's collected more than just monetary donations.

"A man said he had not been sober for over 20 years. It was his first year without drink, and I remember he made a sizable donation," Mulligan said, recalling moments from his half-century as a bell ringer.

He began volunteering for the Salvation Army of Vancouver when he was 27 years old. Now 77, Mulligan has manned the iconic red kettles almost every holiday season, ringing bells and passing along holiday greetings to shoppers.

"I'm always amazed at the generosity of Clark County. The people you suspect can ill afford to give" are often the ones who donate the most, Mulligan said.

His first shifts were in front of the downtown J.C. Penney store on Main Street at Evergreen Boulevard. He also stood outside during the early years of the Vancouver mall, bundled up in a

hat and gloves. "It's easier today, since you're often inside in a covered area," he said with a chuckle.

This year, Mulligan volunteered his time at the Fred Meyer on Southeast McGillivray Boulevard with members of the Vancouver Heights United Methodist Church.

"It was a tradition for me and for others," he said, grateful that he's been able to see generations of giving, as mothers and fathers lifted kids to drop donations into the red kettles.

In later years, Mulligan greeted those same children -- now adults -- passing along the custom of donating to their own kids. Many would tell Mulligan that they had received help from the Salvation Army and sought to return the favor, he said.

In years past, Mulligan would be joined on his two-hour shift by his wife, Diana. Other years would be spent sharing stories with his fellow volunteers. Mulligan has also served on the Salvation Army Advisory Board, and worked as real estate advisor before retiring.

"I've lived here all my life," he said, with strong ties to the community stemming from his grandfather, who moved to the area in 1886, and from his father, who worked for 60 years at the DuBois Lumber Company in Vancouver.

Mulligan attended Providence Academy and remembered how after school he would help his friends rolling up newspapers for their delivery routes. "We had the benches along Broadway lined with newspapers."

But for the Vancouver native, the biggest change to the city has been its population growth. "During the war, 40 to 50 thousand people moved to Vancouver," Mulligan said, "We had just 15,000 people (before)."

He recalled trying to visit his mother where she worked at a grocery store on Main Street, and fighting against the crowds. "Imagine, people would be walking down the street shoulder to shoulder," he said.

Though Clark County has gone through some extraordinary changes, the charity of its inhabitants remains a driving force in the community. For Mulligan, the humble tradition has been about donating and volunteering. "It's very gratifying." Mulligan said volunteering means you're trying to help those in need. "There's no pressure to donate, and all are pretty generous."