Ruth Pryce stood outside a super market in the Midway Shopping Center in Wyoming on a bitterly cold night ringing a bell at a Salvation Army kettle a few days before Christmas in 1985. Under her feet was a small square of cardboard, a futile attempt to insulate her from the icy sidewalk.
She wore no gloves, and her hands were red raw from the winter wind. It was nearly 9 p.m., closing time, but I was able to dash into McCrory’s department store and buy her a pair of woolen gloves. The next time I saw her, she again thanked me for my kindness. And then sheepishly explained she had given the gloves away.
Ruth Pryce was Major Ruth Pryce, an officer in the Salvation Army. I had met her the previous January when the late Thomas R. Davis invited me to join the Greater Pittston Salvation Army Citizens Advisory Board. Ruth ran the local Salvation Army along with Major Bertha Harris.
It was Bertha who gave the financial report at the first board meeting I attended. The balance in the treasury was something like $285. When Bertha said that, she made sure her eyes met mine on the opposite side of the table. It was like she was saying, “See what you’ve gotten yourself into.”
What I had gotten myself into, I soon learned, was the purest, most sincere example of brotherly love I had ever encountered.
At every meeting Ruth shared a little anecdote. One year as Christmas approached she told how the old van she was using had broken down right in the middle of delivering food baskets. Stranded on the side of a street on a dark, frigid night, with several drop-offs left to go, she said it was time to have a little chat with God.
“Lord,” she said, “you know I never question you and if what you want on this cold night is for me to leave the van here and walk home, I am willing to do that. But there are a lot of good people counting on these baskets for Christmas, so if it’s all the same to you, I’d appreciate it if this van would start up.”
With that, she turned the key and the van started.
“You know,” Jimmy Condosta, board treasurer at the time, added when she finished, “when my pickup truck won’t start I talk to God too. But not in so many words.”
Another year, Ruth announced just before Christmas that someone had donated a case of frozen lobster tails. “Imagine,” she said, “some of our families are going to ring in the new year with lobster.”
She paused for a moment, staring into space, and then added, “You know, I think lobster tail is my favorite food. But I haven’t had it in so long, I really can’t remember.”
Still, she and Bertha gave away every last one of those donated tails.
The loving, generous spirit of Majors Ruth Pryce and Bertha Harris has been evident in every officer who has succeeded them at the local Salvation Army over the past 33 years, including and especially in current commanders Lieutenants Gavin and Holly Yeatts.
Gavin and Holly are newlyweds. They married last June and although they did get a bit of a honeymoon, their young married life has been nothing but hard work since. They immediately accepted command of the West Pittston Salvation Army and moved from Bridgeport, Connecticut, into the modest dwelling attached to the citadel in West Pittston. Gavin is quick to acknowledge they were quite fortunate to inherit an efficient operation and dedicated congregation and board developed by predecessor Major Misty Coffelt.
This was their very first leadership assignment and the anxiety that comes with that, on top of the typical challenges facing a newly married couple, was soon exacerbated when Lt. Gavin was dispatched to help with hurricane relief in Panama City, Florida. When he returned, it was time to kick the annual Christmas red kettle campaign into full swing.
When he and I chatted Monday afternoon, Lt. Gavin was up to his elbows in dollar bills and change, with an occasional 5, 10, or even 20 dollar bill, as he counted the donations from the weekend’s bell ringing. All the while, his cell phone kept ringing with one more thing to attend to, one more donation of a bicycle or toy to be picked up, one more group willing to volunteer to man a kettle, and a loving wife, out doing Salvation Army business, taking a moment to remind him to have lunch. It was already 2 p.m. and he had not.
“She’s always reminding me to eat,” he said, his slender frame suggesting those reminders are not for nothing.
With a little more than a week to go, Lt. Gavin is optimistic this year’s kettle drive will meet its goal of $40,000. It’s going to take a lot of prayers, he suggests, since the local Salvation Army lost two kettle sites, Ray’s Market in Old Forge and K-Mart in Pittston Plaza, since last year. But so far, the people of Greater Pittston have been most generous, he reports.
That’s important, because the need is great. This year, the local Salvation Army hopes to provide Christmas gifts for 778 people, including 406 children 12 and under, and Christmas dinners for 205 families.
A Salvation Army member for just six years, Lt. Gavin says he felt a calling as a teen growing up in Florida. He says he and Holly have been overwhelmed by the warm welcome they have received in West Pittston. “The support from everyone has been over the top,” he says.
Lt. Gavin’s goal between now and Christmas is to have every kettle manned every day. Volunteers are still needed for several locations. If interested, call Lt. Gavin on his cell at 954-297-1700 (he still has a Florida area code). Donations also can be mailed to 214 Luzerne Ave., West Pittston, 18643.
I will be at Walmart on Route 315 for two shifts, Saturday, Dec. 22, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, from 9:30 a.m. until shoppers stop donating. I am currently trying to lineup some sidekicks to join me. And getting my long johns laundered.