For hours at a time, Charley Brandt stands outside in the cold, making a joyful noise.
The big brass bell in his gloved hand never stops clanging as he stations himself in front of a Salvation Army red kettle at the entrance of the Lunds & Byerlys in Roseville.
During his shift, more than 1,000 people will go by Brandt’s kettle as they hurry in and out of the store. He’ll greet every one of them: “How you doing?” “Have a good one.” “I like that hat.” “Whatever you do, don’t lose that smile.”
By the time he finally stops talking and ringing, he’ll have two hours done — and 45 more hours left to go.
From the day after Thanksgiving until Dec. 24, this is Charley Brandt’s Christmas.
The Salvation Army has 370 kettles throughout the Twin Cities area. It’s hoping that its 7,500 volunteers, who put in a total of 15,000 hours of bell ringing, will raise $2.5 million to help the needy this season. The majority of volunteers do their bit by pulling a single two-hour shift. A few are like Brandt, who makes it a monthlong mission to ring as much as he can.
No one is more surprised than Brandt that this is how he spends December.
It started about four years ago when Brandt, 71, was looking for something to do after winding down his career as a commercial artist and designer. A friend and colleague suggested volunteering as a bell ringer.
“I was telling him how much fun it was,” said Dan Marchetti of Maplewood, who had volunteered for the Salvation Army with members of his church. “I think he found himself thinking, ‘What’s my purpose?’ I may have challenged him: ‘Just go out and do something.’ ”
Brandt was less than enthusiastic about the idea.
“I said, ‘I’m not a bell ringer. I just can’t stand there for two hours and lift a bell,’ ” Brandt said.
Still, he volunteered for a two-hour shift, just to prove Marchetti wrong.
The next day, Brandt signed up to ring for 36 more hours that season.
He found that he liked interacting with people and getting strangers to smile and maybe donate.
“I found it absolutely fun, pleasant, enjoyable,” he said. “I was blindsided.”
This year, he’s scheduled to ring for a total of 49 hours.
“It fills a little bit of a void,” he said. “It only lasts for a month, but it’s a pretty good month.”
‘A new Christmas’
Christmas used to be quite a bit different for Brandt.
When he was younger, he had a wife, four kids and two golden retrievers. During the holidays, he decorated his Maplewood home with lights and reindeer and red bows on the trees to the point that it became a stop for Christmas decoration bus tours. But then he got divorced. The kids grew up. Two of them moved out of state.
“Things have changed. I have a new Christmas, ringing bells for hundreds and hundreds of people,” Brandt said. “My Christmas is on the street. I really enjoy it.”
Brandt, who lives in North St. Paul with a 10-year-old Yorkipoo named Scruffy, has brought his dog bell ringing when the weather is nice. The Salvation Army frowns on the practice, but Brandt said Scruffy is “probably worth another 30 percent of donations.”
As much as he enjoys ringing the bell, Brandt is serious about the purpose behind the kettles.
“I have a job to do, and my job is bringing money to the Salvation Army,” he said. “If I’m going to work it, I’m going to work it good.”
Over the years, he has refined his tools and techniques.
Once, when he showed up to bell ring, the person who was ringing before him was wearing a Santa suit.
“I just come in there with a jacket, and it’s sort of anticlimactic,” Brandt said.
So he bought a Santa suit, which he wears closer to Christmas. The whiskers are uncomfortable, but like Scruffy, he thinks it brings in more money.
Another time Brandt saw a Salvation Army officer who was ringing a hefty brass bell that was a lot bigger than the small handbells usually provided to volunteers. Brandt asked to borrow it. He hasn’t gotten around to giving it back.
“I figured I spend so much time ringing, I deserved a decent bell,” he said.
He also carries a flat stick that he painted with red and green stripes. He uses that to stuff paper money through the slot at the top of the bucket. And he sometimes hands out candy canes to kids.
Brandt, who’s also a member of a Salvation Army volunteer committee, estimates that he helped collect $12,000 to $13,000 last year. Yet he still is bothered by the time he stopped 10 minutes early after ringing the bell for hours on a cold Christmas Eve. He found out later that the amount of money in the bucket totaled $1,980.
“I wished I would’ve stuck around for the last 10 minutes just to break the $2,000 mark,” he said.
Family and friends have been a little surprised at how much Brandt has embraced his new holiday tradition.
“I think a person kind of reaches for their sense of purpose, and he definitely found that with the Salvation Army,” said Brandt’s son, Jack Brandt. “It brings out the best in him.”
Red kettle connection
Early in the season, he’ll see a lot of change, $1 bills and maybe a $5 bill, Brandt said. Sometimes people will empty a plastic bag of coins into the bucket. But closer to Christmas, people start dropping $5 and $10 and $20 bills.
“Christmas Eve, or a couple of days before, that’s the best. They’re really into it,” he said.
Christmas Eve is the last day of the year for the kettles, and it’s one of the top days for donations to the Salvation Army. That’s why Brandt tries to sign up for as many as five hours of ringing on Christmas Eve.
When he sees someone’s hurrying into the grocery store, he’ll say, “You must be hungry.”
When he sees a couple holding hands, he’ll say, “I like that. Holding hands. I’m proud of you. Don’t lose that.”
He’ll call out a greeting even when it seems too late, when a person is already past his kettle and headed toward the car. Sometimes it works. They’ll stop, turn around and drop in some money.
“Maybe because I live by myself, I just talk nonstop for two hours,” Brandt said of his bell-ringing sessions. “You don’t have a deep conversation. But you connect.”
He’ll compliment people on their hat or their coat. He’ll remind shoppers to pick up their groceries. He lets kids ring the bell.
“I think there are a lot of lonely people out there,” he said. “You give them 10 seconds, and it makes them feel a little happier, a little lighter.”
Even after a couple of hours in the cold, Brandt can be reluctant to call it a night and go home. Sometimes, he’ll stay longer than his typical 4 to 6 p.m. shift if he sees that a volunteer isn’t showing up to ring after him. No one will put money in a kettle if a bell isn’t ringing, he said.
“Tonight, when I go home, it’ll seem a little quiet. Because it is quiet. Just me and Scruffy watching TV,” Brandt said. “The only thing I find bad about bell ringing is when it’s over, and it’s ‘Now what?’ Because you’re used to it for 30 days, and then it’s over.”
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775
The Salvation Army is still seeking bell ringers. You can sign up by going to salvationarmynorth.org/volunteer/bellringing or calling 651-746-3519.