The Bell Curve: Grace in giving, grace in receiving

December 15, 2010|By Joseph N. Bell

Many Christmases ago, I was privileged to meet and write about a man who represented the spirit of Christmas better than anyone I had ever known. I was a rookie freelance writer on my first assignment for the Saturday Evening Post.

He was a 47-year-old tool crib attendant for the International Harvester Company named Joe Swedie. He had come to the attention of Post editors because he brought so much joy and light into the dark world of sick and disabled children. Perfect, we all agreed, for a Christmas issue.

And so we set up plans for me to join him when he made his hospital rounds on Christmas Eve. But the weather didn't cooperate. It was 5 below zero and the roads were a glaze of ice when Joe arrived at my home in a Chicago suburb, driving a battered 1940 sedan with a back seat full of movie projection equipment. When I questioned the wisdom of taking off in this rig, and my family looked on dubiously, Joe said he hadn't missed showing his weekly movie at this hospital for eight years.


And, besides, it was Christmas Eve. He wasn't going to disappoint his kids. So I went along.

On the way there, he told me that during World War II he had learned how to project movies for our troops in France, and had invited sick and orphaned French kids to come in and watch. He was so overwhelmed by the brief patch of joy it brought these kids that he decided to offer it at home from his bachelor quarters with his sister's family in south Chicago.

Somehow it all made sense when I saw the eager faces lined up at the hospital windows on that frigid Christmas Eve. As a nurse inside put it: "You know, Uncle Joe represents Christmas all year round to these kids."

Joe's entrance into the children's ward left a vivid impression. He swept in, trailing his hospital gown and carrying a movie projector. And, suddenly, the ward came alive. Children, who a minute before were rightfully feeling terribly sorry for themselves, were bouncing on their beds and clamoring for Joe's attention.

In the room darkened for the movie, the faces of the children were sharply silhouetted in the dim light. Joe moved about, squatting beside patients and talking with them softly. As we left the hospital, a little girl hanging over the side of her crib said, "Next week's my birthday." Joe told her he would remember.

And we all believed him absolutely. Still do.

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