About 15 years ago, Bill was working at his store, Craft Jewelers, when a young black soldier entered the store.
“Are you Mr. Craft?” he asked.
“Why, yes sir, I am,” said Bill.
“I just want to thank you for changing my life,” said the young soldier.
Located in the heart of Marked Tree, Arkansas, on Frisco Street, Craft Jewelers served everyone. It was really his wife, Carolyn Craft, who ran the business with Bill as a co-owner. My mother-in-law recalls Carolyn giving credit to local black families, a rarity in the mid 1970’s. This is how she stayed in business – trust and fairness. In addition to jewelry, she sold china, silver, small household goods, trinkets and collectibles.
From what I gather, the store was not a high end retailer. A town with a population of 2,500 in rural Arkansas, the residents of Marked Tree are not flush with cash. People work long, hard hours in factory, agriculture, trucking or other blue-collar jobs. The racial demographics are nearly evenly split between white and black. In 2014 the median household income is just under $23,000.
This is basically the entire downtown of Marked Tree, Frisco Street, as it looks today. There are about ten businesses, including an existing drug store and flower/gift shop. It’s almost quaint, but for the feeling of a fleeting existence right around the corner. Main streets in these small towns are rapidly disappearing, giving way to big box retailers on highway bypasses.
As a business owner and county judge, Uncle Bill remembers, with great clarity, the day he changed a life. About 30 years ago around Christmas he learned that Santa would not be visiting several local families due to hard times. He and a group of his friends took it upon themselves to spread some Christmas cheer by providing gifts for those families. On Christmas Eve after all the gifts were distributed, he learned about another family in need.
Single mom. Uneducated. 5 kids of varying ages, the youngest barely old enough to have started school. Poor. The father had run off and left the mom and five kids recently. They were destitute and freezing on Christmas Eve. When Bill arrived with presents, he was shocked at the deplorable conditions. No electricity and barely any food, furniture or clothing.
He helped the best he could and made sure the family had a decent Christmas. I think this is one of the main reasons he has adopted a Santa persona, even growing out his white beard. He carries around a bag of toys wherever he goes. While we were eating after Sunday church service at the Chinese buffet in Paragould, he proceeded to visit each table with a child and let them take a toy from the sack.
His house is littered with stuffed animals and when we visited Bill’s house, the girls loved pawing through the piles and picking out their favorite.
Fifteen years ago, that young black soldier was one of those kids on Christmas Eve who received a miracle from this gruff former county administrator. The soldier told Bill how much his act of kindness meant to him both then and now.
His generosity gave the little boy hope that he’d hung on to for the rest of his life. Hope that people were good and decent, helpful and kind. Hope that had served him well through his education and military career. Hope for the future.
Isn’t that the point of Christmas, hope?
Recounting the story, Uncle Bill went a little moist in the eye sockets. His face softened and I could tell he was right back there in the store, talking to that black soldier, realizing how he’d changed a life.