He's not an employee at Kroger or Hobby Lobby, but this time of year, Ray Braddy tends to be a weekday fixture at one of the two in Aiken, in the name of charity.
The longtime Gloverville resident rings a bell – literally – for hours six days a week this time of year, looking to help encourage donations for the Salvation Army, with one of the seasonal red kettles a couple of steps away, as he wishes passers-by a merry Christmas and happy Thanksgiving, whether they donate or not. He's hard of hearing, so a greeting in return may require a little extra volume.
Braddy, now in his ninth year of bell duty, works under the guidance of local Salvation Army leaders, in terms of his schedule from day to day. "Wherever they want me to work is where I go," said Braddy, who is also an Army veteran from the late 1960s. "This is something I enjoy doing, and I hope the Lord will give me enough strength to keep doing it."
The 76-year-old has put his strength into action for a variety of causes, including Uncle Sam, over the decades. He came up by way of Graniteville High School (in the building now known as the former Leavelle McCampbell Middle School), and went on to four years in the military – "22 months in Germany and 15 months in Vietnam and two years inactive," as he described his experience.
He worked in communications, in his Army duty, and "got to see a lot of places that I wouldn't have got to see if I hadn't went in the military," he said, recalling not only Germany and Vietnam but also London, Hawaii (site of "my last malaria shot") and San Francisco. "I just had a good life."
This time of year, much of the satisfaction comes from his role in earning a stipend and encouraging generosity at such locations as Sam's Club and Food Lion, along with his more frequent posts along Whiskey Road. Sundays are his day off.
Braddy's local admirers include Capt. Randy Tiller, a Marine Corps veteran now in the Salvation Army, with a coverage area including Aiken, Barnwell, Edgefield and Allendale counties. "He's all about family," Tiller said, referring to the longtime bell-ringer.
"We're both vets, so we talked about that. He's all about duty. He has a huge heart ... If he tells you he's going to do something, he's going to do it," Tiller said.
"This is something that I really enjoy every year, because it takes in a lot of money and helps a lot of families that can't afford anything for the children at Christmas and Thanksgiving," Braddy said.
"I make lots of friends, and I just love greeting people. That's something that I've always enjoyed doing, and that's the way you make friends ... You've got to be friendly."
He said he tends to prefer cool weather when on duty, and recent challenges have included ladybugs choosing to use him as a parking place during his shifts at Hobby Lobby.
Braddy also pays plenty of attention to his clothing, to deal well with whatever wind, rain or temperature may come his way.
"I don't never get cold, because I watch The Weather Channel every morning, and the way the man says the weather's going to be, I dress for it in layers. If it starts getting hot during the day, you can take off, but if you don't have the clothes, you can't put back on."
He paid close attention to fabric for much of his adult life, as a textile worker in a Graniteville Company cloth room, but that came to a grinding halt in the form of a deadly train wreck on Jan. 6, 2005, with a chlorine cloud wreaking havoc in the pre-dawn hours.
Braddy hung up his textile hat and went on to work for a few more years, helping a gunsmith in Jackson. He is "fully retired" and does odd jobs to help make ends meet.
His charity connection, he said, came by way of a newspaper advertisement. "They run an ad in the Aiken Standard every year for bell ringers for the Salvation Army, and I went over there and filled an application out."
The bells are tolling this year, he added, from Nov. 13 to Dec. 24, with Sundays as a day of rest.