Salvation Army's top bell ringer charms donors with voice

Harold Pierce is among the top fundraisers for the regional Salvation Army Red Kettle Christmas campaign with a voice of an angel.

Bruce Lipsky/The Florida Times-Union via AP
Harold Pierce sings 'Oh, What A Beautiful Morning' to customers arriving at Publix in Jacksonville, Fla., Dec. 9, 2015. Mr. Pierce is among the top fundraisers for the regional Salvation Army Red Kettle Christmas campaign.

Harold Pierce rings a mean bell and sings with a voice of an angel.

That and a charming gift for gab routinely rank the white-bearded, retired Jacksonville science teacher among the top fundraisers for the regional Salvation Army Red Kettle Christmas campaign.

Pierce, 77, stood outside several area Publix stores last week singing a repertoire of about 15 Christmas songs in a deep, lovely baritone voice he has used as a bell ringer for nine years. The longtime church choir singer also offers various blessings and other friendly messages.

"I was kind of drawn by his vocals," said the Rev. Richard Madison Sr., a St. Augustine pastor shopping at the Gateway Publix. "I just felt the need to respond."

Nicknamed by his fans as the Singing Bell Ringer, Pierce's favorite tune is "I'll Be Home for Christmas. He also specializes in such songs as "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," ''Silver Bells," and throws in an occasional "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning."

"It's a God-given talent," said Pierce, who also sings at weddings and funerals. "I feel like I wouldn't be truthful to Him if I didn't sing."

The international Red Kettle fundraising campaign began in 1891 in San Francisco when Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee set up a collection crab pot at Oakland Ferry Landing to feed 1,000 of the poor on Christmas Day. The first time a Red Kettle volunteer rang a bell was in 1900.

Pierce, a tall, thin man with soft blue eyes, can be found on stage outside area Publix supermarkets from just before Thanksgiving to Christmas, for as many as eight hours a day five days a week. Pierce is one of 240 bell ringers who receives minimum wage, while more than 2,200 volunteer at area businesses in Duval, Clay, Nassau County, St. Johns and Putnam counties.

The campaign by the Salvation Army's Northeast Florida Area raised $845,000 last year — about 8 percent of the organization's budget. The money is initially used for a variety of Salvation Army Christmas programs and leftover dollars go to other year-round services.

Pierce, who has raised between $15,000 and $15,400 in the last two years, said he is especially fond of a Christmas toy giveaway program put on by the Salvation Army with money raised in the small red buckets of the Red Kettle campaign.

"If you care anything about people at all, all you have to do is stand back and observe as the families come out of there with bicycles, tricycles, scooters, dolls and all kinds of other toys," he said. "It's worth it."

Pierce volunteers for the nonprofit organization at other points in the year and is seen as one of its ambassadors, said Kelly Belich, a Salvation Army spokeswoman.

"He's just bursting with joy, and that's why he's so magnetic and good at this bell ringing thing," Belich said. "Who doesn't want to be like that?"

Here's a taste of that magnetism:

"Merry Christmas. Have you been a good girl?" Pierce said to 4-year-old Camille Buss before she and her mother shopped at the Publix off Monument Road.

"Yes, because I ate my broccoli," Camille squeaked.

"You ate your broccoli?" Pierce said with a clap and smile.

"Yes, and my cauliflower," she replied.

"That's a good girl. You're going to be grow up and be very healthy," he said.

Moments later, Pierce began ringing his bell and belting out another song.

Oh, what a beautiful man.

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