Terry Stowe is 61 years old and admits he’s the restless kind.
Anyone who visits the Harris Teeter on Colony Road this time of year can’t help but notice it, whether they want to or not.
Stowe is one of those ubiquitous Salvation Army bell ringers who covet our loose change for programs that help homeless families, fatherless teens and poor elderly people.
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He’s not like most ringers, though. Stowe says it only took one day for that ding, ding, dinging to drive him nuts. “The next day, I told the Salvation Army I needed two bells or I couldn’t do it any more,” he says.
Two bells let him add an alternating rhythm, and a little dance to his step. Then, he got an even better idea. He ditched the bells and brought a harmonica. “People wasn’t used to it,” he remembers. “They just stopped and looked. But they gave more money, too.”
That was five years ago.
Stowe is today a holiday tradition in south Charlotte, playing his harmonica to no one in particular, dancing to his own beat and occasionally bursting into song. People stare, laugh, some cry. A few have come back with a guitar to sit beside him and play.
“He doesn’t care if there’s anybody around or not. You’ll be driving by and see him up there, just a-dancing and playing away,” says Lisa Autry of Matthews, who counts herself among Stowe’s many fans.
“I was a little shocked at first, but it made me smile. The holidays can be kind of crazy and he takes the edge off. I’ve seen people singing with him and even dancing. I go out of my way to come to this store now. If he wasn’t here, I’d go looking for him.”
Odd stories involving the Salvation Army’s Red Kettles always pop up across the nation this time of year. Often, they involve a division in some city that found a rare coin, gold nugget, diamond ring or gold tooth in a kettle. Some of that has happened in Charlotte, though not since 2013.
Charlotte’s Salvation Army has 60 red kettles out this year, which is down about 20 from last year due to lack of bell ringers. Believe it or not, they’re hard to find and keep on the job. Stowe is the superstar of the bunch, famous for his theatrics and his consistency.
He is also something of a mystery man, who prefers playing the harmonica to talking. After a lot of prodding, you’ll learn he is currently single, has a few grown children and was born and raised in Charlotte. He is a house painter by trade and a devout Christian by choice. He says he’s been playing the harmonica 18 years.
“I was in church one day and there was this preacher, and he took out a harmonica at the end of the preaching and played ‘Amazing Grace’,” says Stowe. “I was inspired. I’ve been playing the harmonica ever since.”
The Salvation Army wishes it had more ringers like Stowe, particularly this year. Donations to kettles are down by about $40,000 and the money is badly needed for such programs as Charlotte’s Boys & Girls Clubs and the Center of Hope, an emergency shelter for women and children. In all, 1,500 people a day are helped by Salvation Army programs in Charlotte.
Maj. Larry Broome of Charlotte’s Salvation Army says he’s hoping the Red Kettle campaign can do some catching up in the days before Christmas. The campaign ends later this week.
He says Charlotte is not alone in seeing a drop in donations, and it’s likely due to changes in shopping traditions. More people are shopping online, so there’s less foot traffic at stores. And Americans are doing more shopping by credit card and carrying less cash, Broome says.
“It can also depend a lot on what kind of worker you have standing at the kettle,” says Broome. “You have a guy that plays the harmonica and sings, it becomes a personal thing. We try to encourage bell ringers to be outgoing and engage people, not just stand there.”
Stowe has advice for those other ringers: It’s not just about the money.
“It’s about people, so put your heart into it. When I play, I can see people getting happier. Sometimes they cry, and we stand there and cry together,” he says.
“That’s the old Christmas spirit coming back. We all lose it as we get older, and I help people find it again at just the right time.”
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. In recent years, Observer readers have contributed an average of nearly $370,000 annually to buy needy children gifts for Christmas. All money contributed goes to the Salvation Army's Christmas Bureau, which buys toys, food, clothing and gift cards for families. To qualify, a recipient must submit verification of income, address and other information that demonstrates need. For five days in mid-December, up to 3,000 volunteers help distribute the gifts to families at a vacant department store. The name of every person who contributes to the Empty Stocking Fund will be published on this page daily. If the contributor gives in someone's memory or honor, we'll print that person's name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
How to help
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund. Send checks to: The Empty Stocking Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. Questions about your donation: 704-358-5520. For helping families: 704-714-4725.