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Bell ringer rewards donations in Salvation Army kettles with tunes on her harmonica

BROOKSVILLE — Mary Exley is no one-note bell ringer.

From just before Thanksgiving until Christmas — outside Publix, Winn-Dixie and Walmart in Brooksville — shoppers know the tall blond minding the Salvation Army red kettle as the Harmonica Lady.

Exley periodically slips off her shiny finger bell and slides from her red apron pocket a silvery harmonica. She launches into Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or eases into O Come, All Ye Faithful.

The sweet sounds draw smiles from shoppers and, hopefully, cause folks to dip into their pockets or purses for a donation to help the needy.

The self-taught musician revels in the abundance of Christmas carols and melodies, especially, Exley said, compared with the sole well known Thanksgiving tune, Over the River and Through the Woods.

Of the Christmas repertoire, which she'll begin performing publicly Friday, the 59-year-old Exley said: "They're all short songs. I play one and slip to the next sheet. I keep recycling the songs. I guess I play all day long. People kind of come and go, so it seems like they're not hearing the same songs.

"It's so nice that people put up with me," said the bell ringer, now in her fifth year of soliciting for the Salvation Army.

Patrons more than abide the seasonal musician.

"I've had a lot of comments," Exley conceded. "I guess the most memorable is when people tell me how much the Salvation Army has helped them. It makes me feel good, working for such a good organization."

She continued: "I so enjoy (hearing), 'My father used to play the harmonica ... my grandfather played.' I've had people come in from the parking lot and just stand and listen."

The musician poignantly recalls the comment on one passerby critic: "You're off a note."

Both musician and patron paused. He then told her he was a music teacher.

"He'd stop after that," Exley recalls, "and talk about harmonica music and how it's different to read."

"I can't read music," she admitted.

Harmonica scores, which she gleans from Internet sites, are written in numbers 1 through 10, each designating its reed inside the instrument. She follows the numbers.

"I can read where it shows to breathe in or blow out," Exley said.

Musical rests are not indicated.

"I have to know a song, what kind of rhythm it has, to put into it," she said.

Toward the close of her first season of playing, Exley's husband, Dan, began to tag along with her. The following year, he joined the bell ringer corps as well.

Dan Exley, 65, does not play the harmonica.

"I just stand there and ring my little dingy," he said. "It's fun meeting people, the chit-chat."

As the pair usually are assigned to locations in close proximity, he added with a chuckle, "I have to listen to her."

The Salvation Army's kettle coordinator in Hernando County, Gary Stilson, said the contributions collected by the Exleys consistently have tallied as the second highest among a corps of about 35 bell ringers.

"Wow! It makes me feel good," Mary Exley said upon hearing the ranking last week.

Topping the list has been a retired military veteran who wore his Army fatigues and "talked to everyone," Stilson said. The man isn't among this year's ringers because he has "a real job," the coordinator noted.

Last year's campaign raised nearly $120,000 in Hernando, Stilson reported.

Aiming to attract more attention toward her kettle, Mary Exley, often bedecked in a Santa hat, or a big yellow hat when standing in the sun, has expanded her chapeau wardrobe this year.

"I bought a big-brimmed blue hat," she said. "So I'm going to have fun wearing different hats."

And two weeks ago, Exley bought a new chromatic harmonica.

"I've worn out 10 of them," she said.

Beth Gray can be contacted at

Bell ringer rewards donations in Salvation Army kettles with tunes on her harmonica 11/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 7:16pm]
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