You can hear Gerrell Payton’s Salvation Army bell ringing out in the far reaches of the Walmart parking lot on Hwy. 98 West in Hattiesburg.
Payton, who is the longest serving bell ringer in the Hub City at 13 years, has been on duty at his regular spot.
Payton greeted customers with a hardy, “Hello, how are you?” as customers walked by, some in a hurry, some wrestling with youngsters while others were talking or texting on their mobile devices.
He gave a heartfelt, “Thank you, Merry Christmas,” as they pushed a few bills or sprinkled some change in his red kettle.
Diabetes left Payton visually impaired, which ended his job tending the floors at Forrest General Hospital back in 2000.
Instead of sitting at home, Payton decided to get out and do what he could to help his community when his wife mentioned the Salvation Army’s need for bell ringers. Payton said he was real nervous about it at first.
“I was worried how I was gonna see folks putting money in the kettle,” he said. “But I did it the first season and fell in love with it and have been doing it ever since. I love talking to people and seeking and talking to all the old veterans and military guys.”
Payton said he also enjoyed seeing the little children come and drop their coins into the kettle one at a time.
“Their parents tell them to hurry, but it does no good. And after they put all of that money in, they want more,” he laughed.
Payton has a stool he can sit down on if he gets tired but said it seems like the steadier people are coming in, “it gives me energy and I can stand up longer,” he said. “Now when it gets slow at times I get where I have to sit down for a while.”
Payton is ready for all types of weather and carries a bag with him containing extra layers of clothing. That’s something he’s learned during his 11 years out in the elements.
He has a big green coat he gets out when it’s really cold. “My granddaughter said she knows it’s cold when I get my big coat out,” he said.
It’s a coat he probably would have worn during the chilly weather the first week of November, if the bell ringers had been working then. “My wife drove me to the office, but Captain Connelly told me we weren’t going to try and go out that day, but at least I was there and ready,” he said.
Payton’s shift runs from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Bell ringers get two breaks and a 30-minute lunch break. At the end of the day the Salvation Army makes the rounds to pick up the bell ringers and the kettles and then delivers them back out the next morning.
“Usually they have volunteers on the weekends who can’t ring during the week,” he said. “I’ll work whenever they need me and I’ll go wherever they need me,” but he’s partial to his old stomping ground at the Hwy. 98 Walmart, where he couldn’t start ringing his bell this year until Black Friday. Bell ringers at some of the 50 locations around town were able to start Nov. 22.
“This is kind of my favorite spot, but I’ll go wherever they send me,” he said. Payton said he gets all of his doctors’ appointments out of the way before the bell ringing season starts or they have to wait until the first of the year.
In addition to the enjoyment he gets from meeting people, he’s also gotten a lesson in the hairstyles of today’s young people. “You’d be surprised at all the hairstyles of young people today,” he said. “I get close enough to see all the colors and hairstyles they have.”
Some of the older folks who pass by Payton speak and one even calls him “my favorite bell ringer.”
He said he recognized one lady by the skip in her walk, noting others who were regulars who he hasn’t seen in a year or two and doesn’t know what happened with them.
Payton said donations to the new Dip Jar, which accepts debit and credit cards for a $4 donation, are picking up.
“So many things are going on now that I think they are afraid of it,” he said of the new technology. “Most of the time people come to put money in and don’t even notice it. But I’m telling them about it.”
People often ask if Payton hears the ringing of the bell in his sleep.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I guess cause I enjoy it so much. He’s anxious to start teaching his great grandbabies about giving, as well as saving.
“We thank you; have a Merry Christmas.”