If you’ve been around Charlotte long enough, you know the Christmas season doesn’t start when we put out those giant red ornaments on Tryon Street.
No, it officially starts when we throw open the doors of a ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center for the annual Good Fellows luncheon, when businessmen and power brokers crowd in to raise money to help the working poor.
This was the club’s 100th anniversary, and they had a centennial-sized goal: $1 million, almost doubling last year’s record-setting $532,178.
Frank Dowd IV, who’s stepping down after seven years as president, said the $1 million mark was the idea of developer Johnny Harris, Good Fellows vice president. After they set the record last year, Dowd went to Harris to talk about what to do for the big anniversary. Harris declared that they ought to aim high – really high.
“I just about fell out of my chair,” Dowd says. But he took a deep breath and they started calling on potential donors, pressing them to dig a little deeper this year.
As the ballroom filled up with 1,610 people for lunch Wednesday, Dowd was feeling confident: “We’re close,” he said, even before “the bag boys” donned their red sweaters and started working the room with Christmas gift bags to collect checks and pledges. Usually, about 50 percent of the money is raised during the lunch, with the other half coming from pledges and honorariums made in advance. This year, they worked so hard to meet the goal that they were three-quarters of the way there by the time lunch started.
“I’m confident we’ll make it,” Dowd said. And they did: The total, announced several hours after the luncheon, was $1,373,000, with $318,100 of it raised during the event.
The Good Fellows started with a small group of men at Second Presbyterian Church in 1917 who collected money to help families provide Christmas gifts for their kids. Led for 30 years by the late Col. J. Norman Pease, it grew into a nonprofit that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help people who have jobs but have run into financial difficulties. A few years ago, the group expanded to include a women’s group, Good Friends, which will hold its annual luncheon Thursday.
“You can’t get more real than this,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney, a member who was one of Wednesday’s featured speakers. Putney told the story of a family with a disabled son who was his target to help this year. Putney came with a whole contingent of officers and a color guard in honor of the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
This year’s luncheon included traditions that have developed through the years, including musical performances by the MasterSingers of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and having the crowd start by singing the first verse of “Joy to the World.”
As they do every year, Dowd had everyone who was attending for the first time stand. Then he had everyone stand and take seats again while he called off decades of attendance. He reached 65 years before the final two men sat: Ben Horack, 99, founder of the law firm Horack Talley, and retired textile executive Bill Barnhardt.
There were a couple of differences this year. The “bag boys” usually include Gov. Pat McCrory, but he was on the road, headed to New York for his meeting with President-elect Donald Trump.
And Johnny Harris and Peter Pappas, who usually swap topical one-liners while the money is collected, were instead given a script covering milestones in the amounts collected over the years. Because of the 100th anniversary, Dowd said, they wanted the event to be a little more serious.
That didn’t stop Harris from making jokes, of course. When 1989’s total, $199,000, was mentioned, he pointed out that a good banker could have counted it to make it $200,000.
And when he reminded the men about this year’s $1 million goal, he suggested that anyone who had already written a check should cross out the amount and write in a bigger number.
“We’ll make sure the bank will take it,” he said. “One thing about Good Fellows – we have people in every bank in town.”
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.
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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.