DUBLIN -- The sun was a no-show for most of Wednesday morning. Rain gear joined reindeer on the warm, wet winter solstice.
But there was a window, an opportunistic crack in the dawn, when the dark clouds suddenly gave way to a spectacular sunrise.
Lydia Evans saw the brilliant, orange ball of light, and called her sister, Doyce Smith, to come see it.
On the first anniversary of their father’s death, it was a gift.
“A God-wink,” said Doyce.
By 9 a.m., they were standing in front of a red kettle at the Kroger on Hillcrest Parkway, with bells in their hands and Santa hats on their heads.
It was the first time either had volunteered to ring the bell for the Salvation Army. They saw it as a special way to honor the memory of the daddy with the firm handshakes, big bear hugs and a hearty laugh that could rival Santa’s ho-ho-ho.
The sweet and gentle spirit of Larry Wilkes Sr. was practically right there with his daughters. Every Christmas season, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army was one of his passions.
He had been a volunteer since it opened in Laurens County in 1993. He assisted with the emergency disaster relief during hurricanes Charlie, Fran and Katrina, and the 2003 tornado in Camilla.
And, every Christmas, you could find him in the familiar red smock. He would stand guard at the Kmart, Kroger or the Dublin Mall, the sound of the small hand bell jingling across the parking lot.
He always put the kettle to the mettle.
“Whenever I would go somewhere, people would stop and tell me how lucky I was to have such a wonderful man for a father,” said Doyce.
“You never heard people say anything but good things about him,” said Lydia.
Lydia drove down Interstate 16 from her home in Macon, and Doyce made the trip up from Soperton. They spent Tuesday night with their mother, Claire, because they knew Wednesday was going to be a sad day for her.
The bell ringing was a way to celebrate his life rather than dwell on the anniversary of his death.
Their parents were married on the first day of spring in 1952. Larry died of cancer on the first day of winter in 2010. The funeral was on Christmas Eve morning.
“We never knew how bad he felt because he never complained,” said Lydia. “Then, one day he couldn’t walk. We had hundreds of people come by for visitation at his funeral, even though it was right at Christmas. That’s how much people loved him.”
Larry grew up during the Depression as one of eight children in the tiny community of Stillmore in Emanuel County. (The town got its intriguing name when authorities from the U.S. Post Office sent a list of suggested names, and offered to send “still more” names if none of those were acceptable. Folks in town simply voted to keep the “still more” part.)
When he was 17, Larry went to work with the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1938, he helped build the state park at Hunting Island, S.C. He served his country in the Navy during World War II, and moved to Dublin when he got out of the service and ran a Standard Oil station with his brother.
It was there he met Claire, who would park her car behind the filling station and walk to her job behind the candy counter at McClellan’s dime store. When Larry would come in the store, she would sometimes sneak him extra candy because she thought he was so handsome.
They were married in March 1952 and Larry went to work at Robins Air Force Base. They had five children -- Brenda, Larry Jr., Doyce, Lydia and Amelia.
He was active at Jefferson Street Baptist Church. He was a Mason, and had a special place in his heart for both the Masonic Children’s Home in Macon and the Smile Train charity for children born with clef palates.
Lydia said her father had a wardrobe filled with hundreds of neckties, even though he did not wear them every day. Doyce said it was almost like someone who collects recipes, but never really cooks.
They plan to make patterns for some quilts made out of his ties, including at least one with a patriotic theme and another with a Christmas patchwork that will feature a T-shirt from the Salvation Army.
On Wednesday morning, after witnessing the beautiful sunrise, Lydia and Doyce rang the bell in the rain.
They each wore one of their dad’s special red Santa hats that kept his head warm when he rang the bell.
Lydia’s hat was plain red.
Doyce’s carried an inscription: “I believe in Santa Claus.”
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.