FORT WAYNE — The constant ringing of a bell can be grating. Cliff Harris is well aware of this.
So when he stands in front of a store with his red kettle, working to coax passers-by to leave a donation for the Salvation Army, he tries to lift their spirits with his bell-ringing and his deep, round voice.
“Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas time in the city,” he sang on a recent evening outside the Hobby Lobby.
With all the Christmas carols and gospel songs Harris croons, he punctuates the lyrics with two wooden-handled bells. One bell in each hand, one bell bigger than the other, he rings them sharply, eliciting different notes.
The 70-year-old has honed his technique during five years as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. Asked what his secret was, he unleashed a burst of ringing to display his skill and then asked, “Did you hear that?”
It’s hard to really explain without the audio, but when it comes down to it, Harris’ secret seems to be twofold: He’s musically inclined, and he practices.
“My mother taught music for 50 years, and I developed my own through that,” he said. “I picked up these two bells and played a song with them.”
Harris, a white-bearded retiree who has lived in Fort Wayne since 1958, started working as a bell ringer during the holidays as a way to stay active.
“I can’t sit at home and watch television,” he said.
It also gives him something to do while his friends are drinking. “I don’t like going to bars and getting drunk,” he said.
Maj. Harold Poff, the Allen County coordinator for the Salvation Army, said Harris’ music helps draw more donations to his kettle.
“People, they like to see that kind of spirit in the bell-ringers,” Poff said. “It encourages them to give.”
A couple of years ago, someone who heard Harris ringing his bells suggested he try playing hand bells, so he bought himself a set of eight. And now, on a nice day, you might see him with his hand bells spread out on a picnic table in Lakeside Park as he practices “Happy Birthday.”
Harris said he hopes someday he will be able to share his talents on a larger scale. But for now, he rings his two bells and sings for the Salvation Army. He said he plans to keep doing it “as long as I have my health and strength.”
Depending on the day, he is stationed in front of different grocery stores and retailers. He said his fans will sometimes drive around in search of him.
Harris said he gets joy from singing and bell-ringing because it makes other people happy. “Anything to make them smile,” he said.