I stood in front of Sam’s Club for three hours recently and rang a bell for the Salvation Army. I have done this many years in the past, usually as a project with my fellow Clarksburg Kiwanians, sometimes with other groups or just volunteering with friends.
Some of the wisenheimers passing by who know me personally will stop and ask if this is part of a community service obligation I am required to work off because of some suspended jail sentence or other transgression. I’m a lawyer, so they figure I got caught at something. I laugh heartily (and falsely) as if this is the first time I’ve ever heard that line. Ha ha.
My law firm has a litany of funny stories, some embellished, some created from whole cloth and some even true, relating to times and people past. One of my favorites predates my time at the firm by many years and involves a lawyer I never met. It also involves the Salvation Army and bell-ringing, and I am reminded of it every year I strap on the red apron and pick up my tinny little bell. The story is also worthy of telling and preserving.
The particular barrister to whom this story is credited, I’ll call him Chesney, was known to be quite crusty. The account I have heard is consistent with that narrative. He once reportedly told a young lawyer in the firm who wanted to buy a treatise on bankruptcy law to help expand the firm’s expertise in that area, that, and I quote, ”Harrumph, I’ve done bankruptcy law for 30 years and never needed a damn book yet.” No books were bought.
This Christmas story (of sorts) probably occurred in the 1950’s or 1960’, when our firm was located in a tall bank building at the corner of Third and Main in what was then a very bustling downtown Clarksburg. Union Bank. For several blocks, there were department stores and small retailers and restaurants, and foot traffic was major-city like. Picture the small city of Hohman, Ind., in the movie “A Christmas Story.”
The Salvation Army had picked the particular corner next to our office building to locate one of its bell ringers, directly beneath Chesney’s window on the 10th floor, probably the busiest intersection in town.
As legend has it, Chesney had a particularly important brief or contract to get out the door this day, and the bell ringing, even 10 floors up and with his windows closed, was piercingly irritating. It had begun early in the morning and had gone on for several hours when Chesney must have had enough. He called his secretary into his office and said, “How much you figure that guy collects in a given day?” His assistant supposedly answered, “Oh, I guess around $50,” whereupon Chesney reached in his pocket, pulled out his wallet and grabbed a fifty-dollar bill. He handed the bill to his secretary and said, “Go down there and buy that damn bell.” Again, as legend has it, she bought the bell and brought it up and placed it on Chesney’s desk.
My stint as a Walmart bell ringer added to the lore of this part of our law firm’s oral history. Important background is that I had been coaxed into spending those three hours of my life that I’ll never get back (with Kiwanis I only did 1-hour shifts) with a young lawyer in our firm who makes community service his off-hours hobby. He is on the Board of the local whatever of the Salvation Army, as well as the boards of many other charitable organizations and causes. In fact, he is on so darned many of them that he was given the award by the West Virginia State Bar this past April as “Young Lawyer of the Year.” So the context here is two of the more established lawyers in our county standing in front of Sam’s ringing bells, smiling and saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone who goes in and out of the store.
As luck would have it, one particular gentleman walks by, more or less snarls and says to us, “I remember the day when the doctors and lawyers in this town used to volunteer to do this instead of the Salvation Army hiring a couple of jokers like you two.” Guess we didn’t look the part. After we got up off the ground from laughing and rolling around, my colleague informed me that the Army does in fact pay about 80% of its bell ringers, reflecting, sadly, on current mores regarding community service I guess.
Despite this disparagement of what we considered a nice Saturday morning of civic duty, and despite temperatures and rain and breeze that made it feel more like late afternoon in tropical Florida than Hohman, Ind., at Christmas time in the movie, I did feel the holiday spirit. It was truly heartwarming to see folks who looked like they had little change to spare cram fives and tens and twenties in our bucket, and little children truly excited to ask their parents for loose change to drop in. The smiles on their faces when we thanked them and told the kids that we hoped Santa would be good to them more than made up for the occasional insult tossed our way.
PS: Ironically, and fittingly, the first history of our firm, written by Bill “Smoky” Miller in 1981, was titled “You Can’t Tell by Looking at ‘Em.” Mr. Miller was with the firm for 50 years and was managing partner of the Washington, D.C., office for many years.
Evans “Buddy” King is a proud native of Christiansburg, CHS Class of 1971. He resides in Clarksburg, W.Va., where he has practiced law with the firm of Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, since 1980. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.