Benjamin Franklin — the man who once said, “A penny saved is a penny got” — stood outside City Hall in his knickers, asking passersby to give away their pennies, nickels and dollars to help support fellow citizens this holiday season.
Turns out the Continental Army isn’t the only one this Founding Father supports.
For the third year in a row, local Ben Franklin impersonator Robert DeVitis, 56, volunteered for two hours — in character — as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign last week. DeVitis matched the first $100 in donations with $100 from his own pocket because he’s all about the Benjamins, baby.
“Matching dollar for dollar here today,” DeVitis said as he stomped his feet to keep warm. “Nothing is too small.”
Many people walked right by DeVitis, either so absorbed in their phones or themselves that they didn’t notice the famous 311-year-old inventor and diplomat.
Others stopped to ask if they could get a selfie. His response was always the same: “Happy to, if you have something — no matter how small — to put in the bucket.”
Almost every selfie-seeker obliged, except one man who said, “We can do that,” took a selfie with DeVitis and then walked briskly away, without putting even a penny in the kettle.
Guess he never heard Franklin’s enduring adage that “honesty is the best policy.”
A few passersby seemed unsure of whom DeVitis was portraying. That’s not uncommon, he said.
“Not one day goes by I’m not called George Washington,” DeVitis said. “I’ve also gotten George Washington Carver, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Jefferson. Just five minutes ago a guy called me William Penn. It’s OK. My wife calls me worse.”
On any given day during the holiday season, the Salvation Army has 80 to 100 bell ringers in the Philadelphia region soliciting donations for its red kettle campaign, said Maj. A. Philip Ferreira, director of operations for the Salvation Army of Greater Philadelphia.
Ferreira, who kept DeVitis company outside City Hall, said he loves how the Chester Springs resident engages people without stepping out of character.
“You can’t get any more Philly than this,” Ferreira said. “You have Ben Franklin, who is all about Philadelphia, helping the Salvation Army that got its start in the city of Philadelphia in 1879.”
Officially founded in London in 1878, the Salvation Army first came to the United States in 1879 when Eliza Shirley, a 17-year-old girl, held a meeting in Philly. Now, there are more than 9,000 Salvation Army units and centers nationwide.
DeVitis, who carries a wooden cane, an old-fashioned skeleton key, and a good sense of humor, has been impersonating Franklin for about seven years. He said he was inspired to volunteer because Franklin was a man who gave back to his community.
“All of his ideas were for the common good, not one thing was for himself,” DeVitis said.
As he rang his bell, a man walked up and put a $5 bill in DeVitis’ kettle.
“Nice to see you, Uncle Ben,” the man said. “That’s for the revolution down the street.”
By the end of his shift, DeVitis had solicited $180 in donations. With his matching $100 donation and another matching $100 donation from the owners of McGillin’s Olde Ale House, DeVitis turned over $380 to the Salvation Army.
“I am surprised at how much people give,” he said. “It’s nice to see.”
“Well, this is where it all started, of course, and this is my adopted city. I was born in Boston, but this city adopted me at age 16. Of course, the declaring of independence and also the start of our government happened right here in this city. That’s why Philadelphia.”
What has been your most Philly moment?
“I would have to say back in the day when we installed the government. Nothing can top that.”
If you had a wish for Philadelphia, what would it be?
“No homeless. That is why we’re here. No homeless. We have progressed in the city with technology but it would be great to have no homeless.”
Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story deserves to be told — or someone whose story you’d like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at email@example.com or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.
Want more we the people?
- Last week’s profile: Hip-hop Grandpop Matt Hopkins busts holiday dance moves at City Hall.
- From Dec. 6: People pay $1 just to take a photo of Anthony Smith and his dogs, Noodles and Diva. Smith takes his well-dressed dogs to events around the city in his bicycle basket.
- From Nov. 29: Danie Ocean is a musician with a rare eye disease that’s left her legally blind, is one of the founders of a co-op music studio that requires its members to do community service.
- From Nov. 22: Nearly every day for 17 years, oil painter Mark Campana has hauled his easel from his home in South Philadelphia to Rittenhouse Square to paint scenes in and around the park.
- From Nov. 15: Haircuts 4 Homeless barber Brennon Jones continues to serve people who are homeless at his new barbershop, which was given to him by a stranger who was inspired by his mission.
- From Nov. 8: Street performers Eli Capella and Seraiah Nicole create music in real time that’s inspired by the people who pass them on the streets of Philadelphia.
- From Nov. 1: John Sebastian, the maintenance director at Reading Terminal Market, was a steel drummer who toured with a Caribbean orchestra and jammed with Jimmy Buffett.