For Jim and Yvonne McDougall, ringing bells for the Salvation Army is a simple, fun way to get into the holiday spirit.

The Minnetonka couple, both World War II vets — Jim is 90, and “Von,” as Jim calls Yvonne, will be 92 on Christmas Eve — brave the elements every year. They take turns ringing the bell and warming up over the course of a two-hour shift.

On Dec. 5, they worked an entryway at Edina’s Southdale Center. It was a subzero-degree day, so they planted themselves just inside of the front doors.

“It was the first time we ever had that luxury,” Jim McDougall said. “We enjoy the spirituality of it, but not necessarily the cold weather.”

For the McDougalls, who’ve volunteered as bell ringers every year for a decade, “it’s something that you get attached to — you feel like you’re missing something at Christmastime if you don’t go out and ring the bell,” Jim said.

The couple opens the door for people, wishing everyone a merry Christmas. As people come in to the mall, “we try to relate,” he said.

The volunteer gig also makes for good people-watching.

“Little kids come in, and the looks they give you make it really fun,” Jim said, adding, “If their folks give them some change, they can’t wait to put it into the kettle.”

Some years, the tomato-red kettle fills up faster. Occasionally, the couple has had to empty out the pot so they can replenish it, he said.

For the McDougalls, bell-ringing is a relatively easy way to contribute to a good cause without breaking their budget. They give their time, knowing money is going to “feed people who have no place to go or are homeless,” Jim said.

“I have the utmost respect for the Salvation Army,” Jim said. “I think it’s a real deserving organization as far as putting dollars that we give to work.”

World War II vets

The couple started bell-ringing through Cargill Cares, a group that connects Cargill retirees with volunteer opportunities. Jim worked in the company’s feed division from 1955 to 1988.

When the McDougalls volunteer with the Salvation Army, they wear the standard red apron, heavy-duty mittens and warm layers.

Yet Jim stands out with his Navy cap. “People will thank me for my service and for ringing the bell,” he said.

During World War II, he was a combat air crewman for the Navy. He flew by night in a black seaplane called a PBY Catalina over the southwestern Pacific looking for enemy ships bringing supplies from Japan, he said.

Over the past four years, he’s been working on a book recounting noteworthy events from his life.

Yvonne belonged to WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), a division of the Navy. As a “storekeeper” for the disbursing side of things, she made sure the sailors were paid — cash in those days.

The McDougalls met at a dance that the Iowa National Guard hosted at Camp Dodge. They have been married for 67 years and have six children, 17 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

The secret to their long, full lives?

Jim advises people to “quit smoking, eat right and get exercise.”

And it helps to have “good genes,” he said.

The story of Edith’s bell

When the McDougalls volunteer with the Salvation Army, they bring their own bell. The little brass bell, which once belonged to Jim’s mother, Edith, makes a big sound.

It has a story: In her later years, Edith had a hard time walking. She rang a bell whenever she needed a hand. Jim and his nine siblings took turns staying at her home in LeMars, Iowa.

But it took a couple of bells to get the right system in place. The first one wasn’t loud enough. So a family member remedied the situation with a bell that gets everyone’s attention.

When Edith died in 1999, Jim inherited the resounding bell. He brings it to family functions, where it comes in handy to “maintain order,” he said.

In a way, it says, “Mom’s still out there,” he said.

A language of its own

The bell carries extra weight for the McDougalls when they volunteer for the Salvation Army.

“I think the bell has a language of its own. Its ringing means something to people,” Jim said. “The bell tells a story. … it’s time to start thinking about other people.”


Freelance writer Anna Pratt can be reached at