Charlie Gayle has worn many hats during his 72 years.
Boys Club director. Army soldier. Sunday school teacher. Movie extra. Postal supervisor. First aid instructor. Clown.
But none of those jobs made the welcoming, white-haired Charlotte native happier than driving truckloads of donated Christmas toys for the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte.
“Helping so many people is such a rewarding thing,” said Gayle, who serves as transportation director for the Salvation Army.
Gayle’s involvement with the Salvation Army stretches back more than half a century, when he began running Boys Clubs in Charlotte and Anderson, S.C.
He’s held many jobs since then – including one volunteer stint as “Beetle Bug” the clown. In his clown suit, he traveled to nursing homes to bring smiles to the faces of residents.
“I played the harmonica,” he recalled. “That entertained them because I didn’t know how to play it that well. They’d try to guess what I was playing.”
After working 28 years for the U.S. Postal Service, Gayle retired in 1992.
But retirement didn’t stick. The Salvation Army’s city commander asked him in 1993 if he could fill in temporarily as a driver. Nineteen years later, that commander is retired – and Gayle is still on the job.
During that time, the Salvation Army’s annual toy drive has grown from an operation that helped about 1,000 people each year, to one that now delivers gifts to about 14,000 children in the Charlotte area.
The Charlotte Observer’s Empty Stocking Fund supports the program.
Today, Gayle knows many who donate to the Salvation Army’s Christmas Bureau aren’t well off themselves. Some have had to dip heavily into their retirement funds to make ends meet. Others, he said, “are just one paycheck away from being homeless.”
“People realize there are some folks who won’t have a Christmas if everybody doesn’t pitch in,” he said.
Gayle knows he’s one of the lucky ones. He could afford to retire – if he wanted to.
Recent years have repeatedly landed him in the hospital. He’s been in for an emergency gall bladder operation, two knee replacements and a quintuple heart bypass surgery.
But come holiday time, that hasn’t stopped him from pulling himself 3 feet up into the back of a Salvation Army truck, where he loads hundreds of donated bicycles, dolls, footballs and games.
“Now I’m ready to go again,” he says with a smile. “I can’t think of anything that will stop me.”