The Bell Curve: Grace in giving, grace in receiving

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.

Back home safely, although it was almost midnight, my wife was still up wrapping presents, and when I invited Joe in for coffee there were three heads peering out from the stairway. So we crowned a momentous Christmas Eve by projecting "Miracle on 34th Street" on our living room wall. And thereafter until my family moved to California five years later, Joe would frequently stop at our house and offer the movie of the week to my kids after he finished his hospital rounds.

But those weren't our only ties with Joe. Several months after the magazine story appeared, I got a phone call from Ralph Edwards, a television producer who was planning a show called "Thanks to You." He wanted Joe as the centerpiece. He would be surprised on camera, and Edwards wanted suggestions from me of gifts that would be meaningful to Joe.

I offered several ideas — including toys for his sick children and a new projector and camera — but stressed that his far greatest need was a car. When the show aired on network TV late in the year, Joe was indeed surprised and properly grateful on behalf of his kids — especially when he was led outside and handed the keys to a new car. All of us who loved Joe shared his excitement and gratitude.

That lasted about three months — until Joe showed up with a film for my kids late one night in his old beat-up car. Turned out they took the keys back after the show and all he had were promises. So I checked out the other gifts. Well over half had never been delivered. Christmas was coming again and none of the promised toys had appeared.

So all of Joe's friends got to work. I dealt with the toy company and a thinly veiled threat of legal action on their part if I wrote about their company. But the car, under stress, was finally delivered, along with the toys that were dumped unceremoniously in Joe's front yard, happily in time for Christmas.

Throughout this effort, Joe was mostly puzzled, never angry.

"Being raised the way I was, in an orphanage," he once told me, "I was taught not to demand gifts that people were good enough to give me. If people wanted to give me something and got pleasure and satisfaction out of it, I figured it was up to them in their own good time."

From his reserved seat in heaven, I would believe Joe was saying that there should be as much grace in receiving as there is in giving — an especially good idea at Christmas.

So have a merry one from the Bell Curve.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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