Beloved, longtime bell-ringer retires due to terminal illness

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  • LOREN BENOIT/Press Bill Conner greets longtime friend Paul Peterson at the entrance to Fred Meyer on Wednesday. Conner, 82, has been a ringer for 10 years. This is his last year bell ringing for The Salvation Army.

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    Barbie Wheeler brought her 2-year-old grandson, Bode, to see bell ringer Bill Connor at Fred Meyer on Wednesday. Wheeler is a friend of Conner's daughter, Brenda. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

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    Bell ringer Bill Conner thanks a customer for donating to the Salvation Army on Wednesday at the entrance to Fred Meyer. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

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    Bill Conner was given a terminal diagnosis earlier this year, so he wanted to ring his bell one last time this year. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • LOREN BENOIT/Press Bill Conner greets longtime friend Paul Peterson at the entrance to Fred Meyer on Wednesday. Conner, 82, has been a ringer for 10 years. This is his last year bell ringing for The Salvation Army.

  • 1

    Barbie Wheeler brought her 2-year-old grandson, Bode, to see bell ringer Bill Connor at Fred Meyer on Wednesday. Wheeler is a friend of Conner's daughter, Brenda. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • 2

    Bell ringer Bill Conner thanks a customer for donating to the Salvation Army on Wednesday at the entrance to Fred Meyer. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • 3

    Bill Conner was given a terminal diagnosis earlier this year, so he wanted to ring his bell one last time this year. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

Gold coin donated in red Salvation Army kettle

Volunteers at The Salvation Army Kroc Center were surprised early this week to find a large gold coin among the donated cash and coin in the red kettles.

“I wasn’t quite sure what it was,” says Vanessa Ventresco, who manages the Kettle donations, “I had never seen a gold coin like this before.”

The coin is one ounce of gold, confirmed to be currently valued at $1,235.

“This really helps us out,” says Maj. Don Gilger who is the executive director for The Salvation Army Kroc Center, “We are still behind in our donations compared to last year but a special donation like this will help make up the loss. We’ll be able to clothe extra children this year because of this generous donation.”

It was kettle worker Jerry Peek, while ringing a bell at the Super 1 Foods store in Hayden, who unknowingly received the gold coin in his kettle during his shift last week.

Peek was the top grossing bell ringer in 2017, collecting as much as $800 during a nine-hour shift.

By DEVIN WEEKS

Staff Writer

COEUR d’ALENE — A real Christmas angel walks among us.

Anyone who has shopped at the Coeur d'Alene Fred Meyer during the holidays in the past decade has heard his tinkling bell, returned his jolly and kind "Merry Christmas!" and most likely dropped some change in his red Salvation Army kettle.

"There are people that I see and I actually reach out and pray for them, because that’s part of my job to recognize that they have a hard time, you know?" Bill Conner said, smiling sweetly as he softly rang his bell in the frigid east entryway of the store Wednesday morning.

"Their face and smile means a lot to me," he said. "Many, many of them have gone on, but I remember all of those that have gone on. They meant so much to me while they were here."

And his smile, his face, means so much to them, and they'll remember him always, too.

Conner, 82, was only seconds into his final bell-ringing shift when two older men walked by and immediately shot out their hands for handshakes and said, "How are you doing, Bill?"

"I've seen so many people," Conner said. "It's been a fun time."

Conner has earned the nickname of "Santa" because of his white beard and heartwarming laugh that sometimes sounds like a "ho ho ho." He is a treasured part of the holiday experience for weary shoppers who look forward to catching up with him every Christmas.

But this was Santa's last hurrah. Conner was given a terminal diagnosis earlier this year, so he wanted to ring his bell one last time before earning his wings.

"I’m not afraid of it quitting," he said. "I only got 'til the end of the year, and it’s been a good one. A good one!"

As people walked in and out of the store, several stopped to give Conner big hugs, hold his hand for a moment or kiss his cheek. Conner knew so many of the shoppers by name — he'd ask about their grandkids, how their spouse is feeling, if things are going better.

He knows their stories and genuinely cares about them, with no fear of hugging someone he has only known through his time ringing the holiday bell.

"It means we’re not forgotten in this old world, and everybody seems to forget their neighbor," he said. "I got people all over."

Barbie Wheeler, a friend of Conner's daughter, Brenda, brought her 2-year-old grandson, Bode, to "see Santa."

"It’s heartwarming, and you hate to see people like him go,” Wheeler said, eyes gleaming. "But he’s given his time in. He’s done his job; he’s done it well. He brings joy, he just brings joy. To see that not be here anymore is just devastating to me.

“I prayed for him all the way out here that his last day would be everything that he needed it to be. He’s just a blessing," she said. "I count it a privilege and an honor to come out here and love on him and let him know that we love him."

Conner is a widower, a Korean War Navy veteran, a member of Gideons International and member of Kiwanis International.

In his time working as a ringer for the Salvation Army, he has raised more than $50,000 to help those in need.

“Very few people get to say that,” said Christy Markham, director of development and marketing for the Salvation Army Kroc Center. “His whole life has been about service. He does a job that very few people can do, to stand and ring a bell in the cold for four or five hours a day.

“He just took in all of the smiles, all of the regular customers that knew him by name. For an older person, a widower, this was one of his social contacts. He took just as much from this as he gave back to the customers coming in every day."

Longtime friends Marilyn and Paul Peterson and their daughter, Denna, all of Wardner, came out to see him on his last day.

“He’s a good man. Damn good man,” Paul said. "We’ve known each other quite a few years. Our daughter and their daughter went to school together."

Marilyn said "he's friendly to everybody."

“He makes everybody laugh," Denna added.

Fred Meyer lead assistant manager Eric Salle said Conner "is a staple in our store."

"People ask for him by name,” Salle said. "It’s a great thing people are used to. They see him, they love him, they talk to him. It’s going to be one of those things we’re going to miss in future years."

Wheeler called Conner "the most genuine person you'd ever meet."

"It makes you see what’s important in life,” she said. “Loving people is the No. 1 thing, and he does that. He exemplifies that."

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