For anyone who has seen — or more likely, heard — Charles Moore, the boisterous Salvation Army Red Kettle bell ringer outside the Kroger on Ohio 73, this will come as a shock: He once was more Grinch than Santa Claus.
Before Moore moved to Middletown 15 years ago, he lived in Cleveland and was a constant criminal. He labeled himself “a thug” who was attracted to drugs, alcohol and petty theft.
“I ain’t been the best guy my whole life,” the 62-year-old said as he puffed on a Kentucky’s Best cigarette outside Kroger. “It was always, ‘Charles, let’s go break into something. Charles, let’s get drunk. Let’s do this, let’s do that.’ I hung with the worst; never hung with the best.”
He caught his breath from the cold winter air, then added: “I was a follower. Now I’m a leader.”
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For five years, Moore has been one of the most successful fundraisers during the local Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign. He works 40 hours a week — five, eight-hour shifts that pay him $8.50 an hour, and Moore earns every penny. In his baritone voice, he greets all Kroger customers with: “Ho. Ho. Ho. Merry Christmas.”
If he sees a distracted customer walking across the parking lot, he encourages them: “Let me see that smile.”
After this scenario was repeated, a young girl, holding her mother’s hand as a car passed, flashed Moore a smile minus her two front teeth.
“I got a smile without asking,” he proclaimed. “I’m a natural.”
Ernie Howard, a retired police officer who worked in Middletown, Monroe and Hamilton, serves as Kettle Coordinator for the Salvation Army, overseeing 14 red kettles in the region. Moore is the ideal bell ringer because he speaks to everyone and makes eye contact, Howard said.
“He has the charisma and personality to bring people in,” said Howard, who said Moore is consistently one the top five fundraisers. “He does a fantastic job.”
As Moore said: “Nobody can outdo me.”
Two years ago, Howard was making his rounds, checking on all the bell ringers. When he pulled into the Kroger lot, there was Moore dancing with a customer. The whole time people were filling the kettle with cash.
“It has been a blessing to watch him in action,” Howard said.
There are your typical Salvation Army bell ringers. Those who just go through the motions. Moore is more of an entertainer. He’s constantly in motion. The only thing louder than his bell, is his booming voice.
“All smiles and no frowns and have a very, very Merry Christmas,” he boasts. “Ho. Ho. Ho.”
A man stops and dumps his extra change in the kettle. Moore and the man, complete strangers, fist bump.
“If I’m not out here telling them to smile or have a Merry Christmas, I’m not doing anything,” Moore said. “That would be a boring job. If I can’t get nobody to smile, you might as well leave me alone. It’s fun to me, but I know people need it.”
On this night, it’s 25 degrees and the wind is whipping through the Kroger parking lot. Moore is wearing a winter coat, hat and gloves and his red Salvation Army vest. Every 90 minutes, he takes a 15-minute break. He slowly removes the kettle, carries it inside and leaves it at customer service.
He then heads back outside and has a cigarette or two while sitting on a wooden picnic table at the far end of the store. He doesn’t seen fazed by the weather.
“When I get home I’ll soak my feet in ice,” he said with a smile. “That will warm them up.”
Then, without warning, the conversation switches back to his Cleveland roots. Moore said he got caught up with the wrong crowd, and he paid the price.
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“I was tired of Cleveland or Cleveland was tired of me,” he said. “The judge told me he’d lock me up and throw away the key if I got into more trouble. He said, ‘You don’t need to be here. You need to leave.’ And I left.”
He ended up in Middletown and for five years, lived at Hope House, the city’s homeless shelter. He lives in a Middletown home and wants to ring the bell for at least five more years.
“I feel like I’m serving a purpose from God and myself. I’m doing God’s work,” he said. “But in the past, I wouldn’t do nobody’s work. If I don’t open my mouth and say, ‘Merry Christmas. Happy New Year,’ I go crazy. I can’t just sit here and ring that bell, and not say anything to people. I want people to come to me and enjoy what I do.”