December 15, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Christmas means Salvation Army red kettles swinging, bells ringin…and volunteers in biker gear and Santa hats.

Navy veteran Bob Swanson is one of the Salvation Army’s most faithful bell ringers. For 10 years, he has rounded up a group of fellow motorcyclists to ring bells at the entrance to Dillon Brothers Harley
Davidson in Omaha.

The riders share the holiday spirit in their own unique way. “We wear our biker’s gear with leather vests along with Santa hats,” Swanson says. “And some of us hand candy canes to the kids.”

All are members of the American Legion Riders. That big guy in the Santa hat vigorously ringing a bell might have spent time in a war zone in Vietnam or Korea. The younger man saying “thank you” may have recently returned from Iraq.

People seem to be more motivated to donate to the Salvation Army when donating through a veteran, Swanson says. “One lady said she always feels good donating to the Salvation Army, and the fact that it’s veterans who are bell ringing made it even better.”

Swanson formed the chapter of American Legion Riders for Omaha Post 1 in 2005. Members are veterans, veterans’ spouses, or veterans’ adult children who ride motorcycles.

Men and women who are American Legion Riders represent all branches of the military with a wide spread of ages. The chapter has about 55 members.

Not all who donate are motorcyclists. Some stop to drop money into the kettle as they enter the store to buy a collar with a Harley Davidson logo for their dog. Or maybe they have their eye on a bib with the logo for their baby’s first Christmas.

“It’s fun to watch the kids. They see this big, ugly biker standing there and are a little intimidated,” Swanson says. “One of our members is Santa Claus size and last year when bell ringing he wore a Santa suit.”

Ringing bells for the Salvation Army is a good fit for the American Legion, he says. “It involves the community, and that’s one of the primary tenets of the American Legion.”

After retiring from Physicians Mutual Insurance Co. where he was a vice president, Swanson, who is 72, donned a uniform and joined other military veterans to form an American Legion color guard. They perform at funerals, parades and various functions.

“I had always been moved when I saw family reactions to military funerals. It is the final opportunity to show respect for someone who served our country,” he says. “One of the main things we have to do is keep the public aware of sacrifices that go along with military service.”

Swanson will lead members of American Legion Riders as bell ringers at the entrance to Dillon Brothers Harley Davidson near 174th and Maple streets each Saturday prior to Christmas starting November 8.   

By the way, you don’t have to be a motorcyclist to ring bells. Visit RingOmaha.org to learn about volunteering.

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