Thankful for Jesse Jr.’s enduring Christmas spirit

Published 10:51 am Thursday, December 21, 2017

Walking across the rickety front porch, I tapped on the glass in the wooden door and could hear the sounds on the other side of someone making their way toward me. A few clicks from locks being undone and the door swung open and a small, gray-haired woman with a giant smile welcomed me into her home.

“Just set it right over there on the table for me. That looks just wonderful,” she said of the big box filled with staple foods from the Bruce Rotary Club.

“Won’t you sit down and let me make you a cup of coffee?” she kindly asked.

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Unfortunately, I had to decline, noting my partner Bill Cooper and I still had several more Christmas boxes to deliver around the county. Cooper and I have been delivering these baskets for more than 15 years now. The delivery is the easy part, where you’re greeted by excited, very thankful recipients.

The real work is done by other Rotarians under the direction of James Wright and with a lot of help from Lift, Inc. who helps ensure the 50 chosen from the dozens of applications we receive every year are most deserving.

Over the years, Cooper and I have delivered baskets to homes that would break your heart. The depth of poverty that exists in this area and beyond can be astonishing. The Rotary project serves as a great reminder to be thankful for what we all have and the need to reach out to those less fortunate.

Getting to deliver a dozen or more boxes every year is one of the highlights of the season for Cooper and me. One of my oldest and dearest friends in Bruce, we don’t make the road trips and get together like we once did, outside of our weekly lunch meeting where we sit beside each other at the “Bad Table” at Bruce Rotary.

Many of the boxes we were delivering last week carried us out from Pittsboro into western Calhoun County and down toward Big Creek. Coop had stories of taking those roads years and years ago heading toward the Big Creek area for other enjoyable purposes. We had some laughs about those, about past trips and talked about Christmas.

We both miss his brother Bob, who passed away last year, and speak of him often. I asked what he and Bob did for Christmas when they were little.

“My earliest memories are of us getting in the car with Jesse Jr. when he would go drive around and play Santa Claus,” he said.

Jesse Jr. is Sen. Jesse Yancy, Cooper’s late uncle for whom the Bruce library is named and who may have loved Christmas more than anyone.

My late father-in-law Gale Denley once wrote, “If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word ‘loved’ is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to ‘enjoy’ Christmas, ‘respect’ Christmas, ‘anticipate’ Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme, except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard.”

My father-in-law, who never really got over the loss of one of his best friends when Jesse died suddenly of a heart-attack in 1970, said Jesse would dress up as Santa – red suit, white whiskers and all – and load up his car with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers and drive around town, especially in the poorest neighborhoods, and give it all away. Those were the car rides Cooper recalled with such fondness.

“How did it all get started?” I asked.

Cooper said he remembered when he was around seven years old, (mid 1950s) Jesse walking over to visit with some kids that were playing outside just behind their house. He asked them what they were getting for Christmas and they said “nothing.” Their family couldn’t afford anything.

Cooper said he vividly remembers Jesse Jr. being noticeably distraught over the thought of any kid going without at Christmas. He did his part to make certain that didn’t happen up until his death.

Cooper talked about the incredible investment Jesse made in all those gifts and how much it meant to all who received them, but how it meant even more to him. We discussed how fortunate we are to get to play Santa Claus, without the costume, in delivering the Christmas boxes each year.

“These boxes mean a lot to these families,” Cooper said.

It means a lot to me to have the opportunity to share the good works of the Rotary Club with so many. I wanted to spend more time at every house we visited.

“I’m going to go back and have that cup of coffee,” I told Cooper.

“We should,” he said. “We definitely should.”

Joel McNeece is publisher of the Calhoun County Journal.