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Originally published December 21, 2013 at 7:34 PM | Page modified December 21, 2013 at 8:41 PM

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Salvation Army worker puts down bell, plays saxophone

In Vancouver, Wash., Kennie Campbell’s soulful saxophone is drawing lots of praise for his red-kettle donation drive.

The Columbian

The Columbian

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Some folks find the Salvation Army’s signature sound — that endlessly tinkling bell, as rung by some hopeful kettle maven — about as endearing as the 473rd chorus of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

On the other hand, a soulful saxophone can take a Christmas carol and invest it with real spunk.

Especially when it’s blown by Kennie Campbell. Campbell, 51, has hung out with tigers, eaten fire and clambered around on sky-high scaffolding, survived homelessness and addiction and led the way for others to overcome the same. Now he’s the sax man who’s spreading funky good spirits from his red kettle station in front of Walgreen’s downtown at Main and Fourth Plain in Vancouver, Wash.

“People like it. They thank me for not ringing the bell,” Campbell said. In fact it was some serious irritation with the constant ringing — and some pointedly non-Christmassy snarls that came his way — that had him substitute his beloved saxophone last year. That was just fine with him, he said.

“It’s an extension of the body. It’s the closest thing there is to the human voice,” Campbell said. “More people will stop and talk to me than if I’m just standing here ringing a bell.”

“Love it, man, you keep it up,” said one man who dropped something in Campbell’s kettle while heading for his truck.

Campbell said he’s a native of the California desert. He took up the saxophone when he was 10, and started playing in his school band the following year. He’s been playing on and off ever since.

Much of that saxophone playing occurred during the 26 years Campbell said he spent working for a traveling circus.

But blowing the horn isn’t all he did for the circus. “I did everything except manage the whole thing,” he said. He designed and built tall lighting scaffolds (long before safety laws requiring harnesses, he said), fed and cleaned huge animals (and nearly lost his leg to a tiger on one occasion), ran around the ring in gorilla suits and witch-doctor outfits, and generally contributed to the carefully controlled mayhem that is a circus.

Campbell drank hard and eventually got clean.

“I asked God to take away my craving. I have been walking God’s path ever since,” Campbell said. He moved into an addiction-recovery house for men, and eventually became the resident manager. He lives there now, he said. “I feel like I’m blessed.”

Mostly Campbell offers up traditional carols, but he branches out, too. Classic rock, blues, funk, jazz from the big-band era — he digs it all, he said. On a recent afternoon he was running through the somber, traditional “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and a bit later, started in on the secular and bouncy “Ain’t We Got Fun?”

“I am getting paid to do what I love and to make people happy while they’re shopping,” he said. “And to raise money for people in need. People’s needs never take a day off.”

The Salvation Army uses donations to its annual Red Kettle Campaign to support its social-service efforts — things like emergency food and cash for people trying to stave off homelessness. The local branch is looking to raise $350,000 through 60 kettle sites this year. Red Kettle season ends Tuesday.

Steve Rusk, the local Salvation Army spokesman, said Christmas-related music is always welcome at kettle sites — as long as that’s OK with the hosting business.

“We try to be sensitive to the stores. We are their guests and we try to be mindful of that. Some stores allow certain things and not others,” Rusk said. He said he’s aware of at least one dancer, one guitarist and “one guy who does a Christmas chipmunk dance” while tending kettles at local stores.

“I’ve gotten two calls about Kennie this week and we’re aware of what a delight he is,” Rusk said.

Rusk said he’s aware of people who don’t appreciate endless bell ringing. “We’ve had stores that insist we wave a virtual bell. It was not our preference but we did it. We didn’t do so well there,” he said.

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