WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Sudden excitement shattered the monotony of a morning spent sorting piles of change and crumpled bills when a Salvation Army employee unfolded a small piece of paper and a gold diamond ring tumbled onto the table.
The unexpected discovery caught the small assembly off guard, but the shock was only momentary.
Salvation Army officers knew what had happened as soon as they read the handwritten note that accompanied the ring.
“This is real. In loving memory of Benny and Phyllis.”
For the third consecutive year, an anonymous someone had slipped a valuable piece of jewelry into a Salvation Army kettle.
“It’s very exciting to see that obviously the same donor had given another piece of jewelry, particularly when (donations in) the kettles are down and every nickel and dime counts,” said Major James Allison, the commander of The Salvation Army of Winston-Salem.
“You have to wonder about who Benny and Phyllis were. You just have to picture two incredibly loving and generous people who cared so much for others that it clearly impacted someone around them enough to want to give, too.”
The best place to begin to look for clues about the people who inspire such annual generosity had to be The Salvation Army’s annual Christmas program, which culminated just days after workers found Benny and Phyllis’ diamond ring.
It made sense to try to draw a line backward from such a donation and, with any luck at all, be able to paint a picture of Benny and Phyllis.
When I heard about the first gift two years ago — a white gold and diamond ring wrapped in a $20 bill with a note containing the same dedication to Benny and Phyllis that was dropped off at the K&W on Healy Drive — I pictured an older couple who had lived a long and happy life together.
Perhaps they had gone through hard times before finding a measure of material success that enabled them to help others. I imagined Benny and Phyllis to be good country people, the kind who selflessly volunteered their time as well as their money.
Allison was busy directing operations, but not such much he couldn’t take a few minutes to talk about the latest gift.
“Immediately, you go, ‘Wow. It’s another ring,’” he said. “And then you read the note. It’s just really touching. You don’t really have words for it.”
The second donation came about this time in 2012 when someone dropped a gold diamond necklace into a kettle at the K&W on East Hanes Mill Road with the same handwritten note punctuated with the same smiley face.
“This is real. In loving memory of Benny and Phyllis.”
The third gift of diamond and gold jewelry came from the same K&W on East Hanes Mill on the city’s north end.
Three years in a row; surely someone at The Salvation Army had an inkling?
“We really don’t,” said Ellen Blevin, the director of marketing. “In our eyes it definitely has to be from the same person or family. It would be nice to know so we could thank them. We’re grateful for their desire to help The Salvation Army, but we don’t have time (to look).”
Starting in September, employees begin the monumental task of looking through thousands of applications from families who might need a helping hand to make the holiday a little more cheerful.
And while that’s going on, they begin collecting and sorting a warehouse of donated toys, food, clothing and other items. The organization’s goal is to match donations with a kid’s wish list as best they can.
Those lists are frequently filled out as part of the Angel Tree program, so it’s not a total crapshoot.
“Each year we’re able to serve more than 3,000 families from Forsyth, Stokes and Yadkin counties,” Allison said. “That’s about 12,000 individuals, and 7,000 children.”
The week before Christmas, hundreds of parents descend on a former Dodge dealership on Peters Creek Parkway to pick up items. Each family receives a box filled with food, a frozen hen and three gifts for each child.
A small army of volunteers and employees adds sanity to the controlled chaos, wheeling shopping carts full of goods to grateful recipients who have checked in at designated days and times.
The volunteers work in shifts, refilling carts and checking to see that the numbers on the bags match with numbers assigned to recipient families.
The entire process is smooth and orderly. A definite sense of holiday good cheer hangs in the air.
“This is really nice,” said Tocarla Shaw, 31, of Winston-Salem, as she waited patiently in line. “I’m hoping my son can get skates or a bike. He’s so excited. He keeps asking. ‘Mama, when is Santa Claus coming?’”
Nearby, Allison took it all in and paused to wipe a tear.
“I get a little emotional,” he said. “When you see what goes into this from Sept. 30 to this very day, it’s just joyous to see.”
A simple search
Donations through the kettle program were down this year, partly due to the compressed time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That makes such gifts as the one in memory of Benny and Phyllis particularly important. Every cent counts.
The next logical step in the search for Benny and Phyllis was in the office. A few things about them seemed to be obvious.
The notes that came with the jewelry each said “In Loving Memory of Benny and Phyllis.”
That indicates that they’re deceased. The anonymous gifts in their name started appearing in 2011, so it also seemed logical that the survivor of the two had passed away in the preceding year or so.
Perhaps it’s a reach, but it’s also not difficult to surmise that rings and the bracelet belonged to the couple, gifts a Benny might have given to his wife through the years.
It’s also easy to suspect that their survivors might have decided to offer the jewelry as gifts in their memory to the less fortunate each Christmas by dropping them into a red kettle with a simple note.
The Journal’s archives are pretty thorough. A simple search for “Benny and Phyllis” turns up 180 hits, most of them obituaries.
I learned that a curious colleague, photo editor Walk Unks, had done that same thing last year.
He had saved the results and shared what he learned about a Benny Church, 71, of Tobaccoville, who died in August 2009.
He was a loving, kind and tender hearted man. … Benny touched many lives and loved the Gideon Ministry.
He was a faithful Gideon always going about His Father’s business of giving and distributing God’s Holy Word, the Bible. … (He) was the owner and operator of Interstate Truck Sales in Winston-Salem.
Church was a godly and generous man, active in his church, who had run a successful business. His parents were from Purlear in Wilkes County.
Further research turned up information about Phyllis Gordon Church. Her parents were from Texas and she passed away in May 2005 at 64.
And on June 28, 1958, she was married to her loving husband, Benny M. Church, with whom she spent over 46 wonderful years. Mrs. Church loved her family dearly and always approached life with a cheerful spirit about her.
That was the only Benny and Phyllis who met the criteria. A brief moment of excitement soon gave way to another question: “Now what?”
A shining example
Benny and Phyllis were survived by adult children, and they had left a legacy of caring. It’s not terribly difficult to find people in the age of the Internet.
A few minutes at the computer turned up an address for Cathy Shallow, the daughter of Benny and Phyllis Church.
The question turned into a series of questions. What if the Churches weren’t the right Benny and Phyllis? What if it was?
What if the donor (or donors) wished to remain anonymous? That makes sense; it’s easy to imagine others coming out of the woodwork if they thought someone was just giving away gold and diamond jewelry.
And, how to approach Shallow? What an odd thing to ask. Excuse me, but do you know someone who might be donating expensive jewelry to The Salvation Army in the name of your mom and dad?
In the end, though, the decision was easy.
At least ask. Give her the option. If she didn’t know the donor, then she didn’t know the donor.
And if this Benny and Phyllis wasn’t the right Benny and Phyllis, the people who have been honored by these kind and generous acts had to be a couple who had lived their lives the same way.
So I went. Benny and Phyllis’ daughter listened patiently while I explained. Your parents had to be incredible, loving people.
“No, it wasn’t us,” she said when asked if she knew how to get in touch with the donors. “I wish I could help you … yes, they were amazing.”
The mystery behind the donations remains, and perhaps that’s as it should be.
May we all try to be as inspirational as Benny and Phyllis.