Family carries on tradition

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SCOTT BURNS (L) carries on a family tradition of bell-ringing in Portland, Ore.

If you had been in downtown Portland on the bustling blocks surrounding Pioneer Courthouse Square the Friday before Christmas last year, you would have seen him. With the faint sound of The Salvation Army brass band playing a few blocks away, Scott Burns stood with bell and kettle in hand, greeting passersby with a “Happy Holidays” here and a handshake there.

Every few minutes, someone would approach with a “Hello Scott” and depart a short while later with a warm handshake and a smile…and after emptying their pockets of dollar bills and coins, of course.

The Burns family was continuing their 66-year-old tradition of bell-ringing with the Rotary Club of Portland on behalf of The Salvation Army. About 120 participants donned bell-ringer aprons and joined the Burns family on the streets of downtown Portland, many accompanied by their children, or even their dogs. They blanketed street corners and store entrances, raising more than $17,000 in only two hours for the Army’s Christmas campaign.

For the Burns family, the tradition began four generations ago when Scott’s Grandpa Burns worked for Standard Oil Company of California and served as a Portland Rotarian. Every Friday before Christmas, you could find him outside his building playing his tuba and bass drum while co-workers dropped coins out the windows from above into his kettle.

Grandpa Burns passed away more than 40 years ago, but his fun-loving spirit of giving has spread to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His grandson, Scott Burns, is still an active member of the Portland Downtown Rotary.

Scott first rang bells with his father while in high school in the 1960s. Since returning home 12 years ago from teaching abroad, Scott, a geology professor at Portland State University, has renewed the family tradition of bell-ringing at Christmas. Often, his own three children, now high school age and older, join him. On any given year, you’ll find them outside the same building where Scott’s grandfather stood 66 years ago.

About four blocks away, Scott’s brother, Bruce, rings his bell outside the building that houses the law firm for the family’s company. Much like on Scott’s turf, the ringing of the bells only lulls when passersby stop to converse and offer holiday greetings to Bruce, his sister, brother-in-law and their son.

Bruce is the president of Burns Bros., Inc. He has an ongoing relationship with The Salvation Army Moore Street Corps and Community Center in North Portland. He is hesitant about labeling his involvement as philanthropic. “I think of philanthropy as the really big donations; we just give what we can. If we can give money or time, we’ll do it.”

Bruce began ringing bells 16 years ago with his father on the 50th anniversary of his family’s Rotary Club bell-ringing involvement. He says the best part about bell-ringing is observing the children who end up teaching their otherwise hesitant parents about the spirit of giving. “They won’t allow their parents to pass by without dropping a few coins into the kettle,” says Bruce.

There’s one other bell-ringer — Bruce’s nephew, Alec, a middle school student. This was his fifth year ringing The Salvation Army bell. A fourth generation bell-ringer, he is grateful for all his grandfather taught him about helping others. “It’s a great way to help out,” says Alec. And we couldn’t agree with him more.

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