Bells of Christmas return to Oak Harbor

The ring-a-ding-ding of Christmas is back in Oak Harbor after a delayed start by the Salvation Army.

The familiar red signs and black kettles made their first appearance Friday at Wal-Mart and over the weekend more volunteers expanded their reach.

Bell ringing will pick up this week and continue until Christmas as forces allow.

Bob Bearchell of the Salvation Army’s Northwest Division Headquarters is reorganizing the fundraising effort on Whidbey Island. Dressed in his Army uniform, he attracted donations not with a bell, but with sweet holiday notes from his coronet. Taking a pause from a Christmas classic, he explained how he learned to play music as a kid. “They used to say ‘teach a kid to blow a horn and he won’t blow a safe,’” he said.

For years the Salvation Army fundraiser started the day after Thanksgiving in Oak Harbor and went off without a hitch. That was because of the organizational efforts of Digger O’Dell and his wife B.J., along with helpers Gerald Meyers and his wife La Ling, and many other volunteers. Together they raised more than $540,000 over the last 14 years for the Salvation Army to help the needy on Whidbey Island. But, earlier this year a stroke sidelined O’Dell, 80, and he had to step away from his Salvation Army efforts.

O’Dell’s voice still sounds strong and confident, but his stroke rehabilitation requires five trips a week to physical therapy.

The large network of volunteers organized by the O’Dells included a long list of civilian and Navy organizations. “We’d go to schools, Boy Scouts, anywhere,” O’Dell said, preaching the need to get out there and ring a bell for the needy. It takes a lot of people to ring the bells all day and night outside such traditional locations as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Safeway, Albertson’s and Saar’s.

“We had helpers from the NJROTC and VP squadrons. They all stood watch,” O’Dell said. “It was a really neat deal.”

O’Dell had no desire to stop his Salvation Army efforts, but his physical condition left him no choice. “The hand just won’t hold the bell,” he said.

The stroke hit in March and as the holidays neared O’Dell gave his collection of Salvation Army kettles back to headquarters, thinking the Oak Harbor drive would end, at least for this year. “The stroke knocked me completely out and I was unable to find anyone to pick up the ball, because it’s a pretty heavy one,” O’Dell said. “It takes an awful lot of time.” He spent 100 hours last year just ringing the bells, his wife B.J. put in 250 hours organizing the drive, and visits to schools, churches and other organizations added more hours. He worked closely with Whidbey Island Bank, which counted and wrapped all the donations for free.

Soon after Thanksgiving, Oak Harbor residents started noticing the lack of ringing bells in town and the resulting concern started the Salvation Army revival effort. Bearchell got the kettles back and, working from a list supplied by O’Dell, started contacting organizations that had helped in the past.

“As soon as we get some volunteers we’ll be back in all the traditional locations,” Bearchell said Monday as he again collected donations at Wal-Mart. There was not shortage of change and folding money as people ducked beneath his coronet to drop cash into the kettle. It was obvious from all the smiles that to many, Christmas in Oak Harbor just isn’t the same without the Salvation Army.

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