Every Christmas, longtime area residents Gil and Lela Rutledge would ring the bells at the Salvation Army kettle in front of Shawnee's Walmart, where he would often run to vehicles and help customers unload their carts on some of the busiest shopping days of the year.
And while Gil Rutledge passed away unexpectedly in April, his family is planning a kettle project Saturday to carry on his legacy while giving back to the community he loved so much.
The couple's daughter, Barb Pool, who lives in Dallas, is coming home for the Christmas project.
"This year, in his honor, we have planned for many family members, coming from many areas, to help mom fill in for dad," Pool said.
Pool, along with her two siblings, along with members of the family, including his nine grandchildren, are planning to ring bells in honor of Gil Rutledge from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Shawnee's Walmart.
Pool has a collection of sequined Santa hats in all colors that the family will be wearing while also singing Christmas Carols.
The couple, who would ring on behalf of Hilltop Baptist Church, have been members of the Tecumseh and Shawnee community for more than 40 years, Pool said, and her father had a knack of getting people to give.
"Dad got people to stuff that thing," Pool said about the kettle, adding that her father would always run out and help shoppers load items from their carts into their cars.
"He was one of those people who never met a stranger," Pool said.
As they celebrate their first Christmas without him, Pool said they wanted to do something to honor him and they didn't want their mother ringing the bells alone.
"We're trying to find ways to still celebrate the meaning of Christmas and not feel sad," Pool said.
It's developed into the project set for Saturday. Pool has even made up a poster to honor Rutledge. The family is planning to ring bells and then celebrate their family Christmas that evening.
Lela Rutledge said her husband always volunteered and ringing the bells for the Salvation Army kettle project "was the highlight of the year for him."
Often, she recalled, she'd ring both bells as he helped shoppers with their purchases, and remembers he'd get people to donate going into the store and again when coming out. He often brought out the Christmas spirit in others.
"People would have the longest faces — he could have them smiling before they went through the door," Lela said. "He was always ready to help somebody…he never saw a stranger."
In addition to the Salvation Army bells, Lela said she'll also have her own collection of bells, enough for the whole family.
Page 2 of 2 - "It's hard without him — the holidays are the hardest days," she said. "We know he'll be there in spirit."
Pool said she hopes what they're doing will touch someone's heart.
"It's sure going to help ours," she said.