A Tale of Salvation

The two men, 15 years apart in age but brothers in spirit, came to the Salvation Army by different paths but ended up in the same place.

Joseph Bassett was just being a kid, absorbing the lessons life taught him. He would devote his life to the Salvation Army. Robert Traill went off to war, grateful for the Salvation Army ladies who greeted him coming and going. He would give the Salvation Army 25 years of volunteer service—so far.

This holiday season both men—Traill, 89, of Cape Elizabeth, Bassett, 74, of Old Orchard Beach—will ring bells in the Portland area and tend the red kettles that people around the world have come to associate with charitable giving. Each year, the coins put into the kettles pay for gifts and holiday meals for needy families that the rest of us take for granted. For those who are alone or suffering from the loss of loved ones, a visitor with a gift basket can provide a bright spot, however fleeting.

Those are the moments that motivate bell ringers like Bassett and Traill.

Bassett, born into a Salvation Army family in upstate New York, moved frequently as a child and rang bells in many places. As a young man, he went with his father to deliver a food basket to a family in a desolate area. “They lived in this little hut,” Bassett recalls. “As we walked in, it was a mud floor, and children were sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Even though it has been many years, I still remember that.” He also remembers delivering a basket to a woman in a nursing home, who took his hand and kissed him. A nurse told him, “You’re the first person who has come to visit her in a long time.”

Traill was headed to Hawaii to join the Second Marine Division when he saw a sight on the San Diego docks that he wouldn’t forget. “The ladies with the old-fashioned hats were there with coffee and donuts.” After the war ended and Traill returned from the occupation of Japan, “There were the same Salvation Army ladies on the dock at San Diego, welcoming us home with coffee and donuts. It was a memory that always stuck.”

The Salvation Army was founded in London in 1865 by William Booth, a Methodist minister, and his wife, Catherine. They wanted to start a church in the East London slums but soon learned that the poor needed soup and soap as well as salvation. The Christian mission that the Booths started became the Salvation Army in 1878. Two years later the idea spread to Australia, Ireland and the U.S. Now it has a presence in 124 countries but still is headquartered in London.

Its mission continues to be soup, soap and salvation. Besides holiday meals and year-round food assistance, the Army provides kids with gifts, clothing, school supplies, summer camps and after-school programs. It provides relief to those suffering from disasters, addictions and homelessness as well as job training, spiritual counseling and worship services. The money raised by the kettles funds those programs as well as the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals and gifts.

The famous kettles entered the picture in 1891 when Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee, distressed by the number of poor people in San Francisco, set out to serve a Christmas meal to a thousand needy families. McFee remembered his sailor days in Liverpool, England, when people getting off boats tossed coins into a large iron kettle. He put a similar pot at the Oakland ferry landing with a sign that said: “Keep the Pot Boiling.” It wasn’t long before he had enough the money to serve that Christmas meal. The idea spread, and the kettles became an enduring symbol.

On this 120th anniversary of the red kettles, a thousand bell ringers will be ringing bells throughout Maine this holiday season, hoping for the kind of generosity that raised $678,000 last year. “That’s a lot of nickels, dimes and quarters,” said Maj. Terry Shaffer, who serves in the Portland Corps alongside his wife, Maj. Penny Shaffer.

But these are hard times, and the Salvation Army is being stretched to serve more people this year while contributions remain level. The Portland corps expects to serve holiday meals to a thousand households in Maine this year, but some need help year-round. The Salvation Army’s Cumberland Avenue food pantry is helping 15 to 20 percent more people this year. The same is true around the country.

In all, 55,000 people in Maine received services from the Army last year.

Shaffer says the kettles are often children’s first exposure to philanthropy. Every bell ringer has stories to tell about children shyly approaching the kettles with their coins, but not many have the story told by Traill.

He remembers a 5-year-old, the son of a Salvation Army board member, who charmed Maine Mall shoppers, wearing a traditional Army apron that fell to his toes. “He proved to be the best, most productive bell ringer we had,” Traill says. “He had no compunction about grabbing people and bringing them to the kettle. It was a pretty amazing thing.”

The keys to a successful kettle campaign are the willingness of merchants to allow bell ringers to stand outside their stores, and the willingness of volunteers to ring the bells, Shaffer says. And it’s not always an easy job. Bell ringers need perseverance and “a good pair of long underwear,” Shaffer says. “It can be very lonely and cold if you’re out there alone for a couple of hours.”

He adds, “The best bell ringer is a person with a cheerful disposition and a smile that says, ‘Thank you.’”

Those who get a helping hand this holiday season may put coins into those bright red kettles in the future. That’s a familiar story told around the country and the world. Traill says he has been “amazed at seeing so many people of modest means” at the kettles, giving perhaps more than they can afford, because their families received help from the Salvation Army in the past.

Bassett remembers a man in New Haven, Conn. who handed him a stack of $100 bills and said, “When I was a kid, the Salvation Army helped my family.” Bassett and his wife were stationed in New Haven for six years, and the man came in every year, always with at least ten $100 bills. He never gave his name.

Traill is a former oil company executive who took early retirement to start a business in Portland and has been involved in many charitable ventures. He has been named a lifetime member of the Portland Corps advisory board, which he considers a great honor, but he insists he has gained more than he has given. His formula for a long life? “A wonderful wife and children, regular exercise of mind and body, and luck.”

Bassett has risen to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army. “It’s a high position because you represent not only the Salvation Army but you represent God,” he says. “It is humbling to realize that I belong to a movement that people hold in such high regard. It’s been a wonderful life.”

Donna Halvorsen, who lives in South Portland, has been a reporter for more than 30 years in Maine, Minnesota and New York. She covered courts for the Portland Press Herald in the 1980s and retired in 2007 from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where she spent 17 years covering legal and consumer issues, health care and the Minnesota Legislature.