John Potter stood outside Albertsons and rang his small red handbell, greeting shoppers with an endless jingle as they walked through the front door. The bell, dwarfed in the grip of his tattooed knuckles, chimed over the traffic passing in front of the east-side Casper grocery store.

“Merry Christmas!” he called through the unusually warm December day. “God bless!”

Some shoppers stopped to talk to Potter as he collected donations for the Salvation Army. Some he called to by name — many had come to him in times of need.

An older man walked into the store, his frame hunched over his cart. Potter waved and said hello. The man grunted a reply. Potter knew the man, he said, and also the yellow and maroon windbreaker he wore.

“That’s my jacket,” Potter said as the man disappeared into the store. “I gave him that jacket a while ago.”

Potter pointed to a red patch on the shoulder of his own black coat.

“People trust this shield,” he said, fingers lightly brushing the Salvation Army insignia.

Potter’s familiar with patches, though of a different style. For more than two decades, Potter rode with a notorious biker gang and collected on their debts. He fought and drank and partied.

But then his mom fell sick. He returned to his native Casper. And by a stroke of fate, he fell into work with the Salvation Army.

Since then, Potter has served more than 1.5 million meals for the poor and worked countless hours as a volunteer and employee. He still spends hours on the road, but now he pilots a boxy Salvation Army emergency disaster truck to floods and fires, where he serves food and offers hope.

“I’m proven fact that people do change,” he said earlier this month, bell in hand. “I’m proof that people have good hearts.”

Rough and tumble

Potter built his first bike by age 13 and soon discovered the thrill of Wyoming’s limitless roads. He felt best when he was going so fast he couldn’t breathe.

In his 20s, Potter fell in with a biker gang. For more than two decades, Potter rode with his adopted brotherhood. He collected on their debts. He watched friends fight with fists and knives. He watched friends get hurt; he helped beat up others. He spent time in jail. He made lots of money sometimes, other times it was hard to get by.

It was a violent, quicksilver type of life. But he was free, or so he believed.

In the early 2000s, Potter’s mom became sick. He returned to his native Casper for a visit. A few days after his return, he saw an old friend standing outside the Salvation Army building on Center Street and stopped to chat.

During their conversation, Potter mentioned that his mom didn’t have any milk in the house. His friend offered a jug from the Salvation Army’s warehouse. When he offered to pay, the friend refused. That’s what the Salvation Army does, she said.

Potter returned a few days later to clean dishes as a volunteer and repay his debt. Soon he was coming once a week. Then those weekly stints turned into daily volunteer work.

The good, hard-working people who surrounded him started to rub off on him, Potter said. The work made him feel good. There was no moment of epiphany, just a gradual thawing of the heart.

So Potter traded in the freedom of the road for the Army’s kitchen and warehouse. He found a new place to belong. He found spiritual freedom in service.

“There’s a lot of things in my life I can’t make up for,” he said. “But now I’m giving instead of taking.”

Within a few years, he racked up 3,500 volunteer hours. The Salvation Army offered him a job. For the last 10 years, Potter has mopped floors, served meals and led Bible studies. He can’t even estimate how many times he’s wished passerby a Merry Christmas while he rang a red bell.

“I don’t have to be that rough and tumble guy anymore,” he said. “I’ve got the best job in the world.”

Stepping up

He gave up the gang, but Potter’s still a biker. He tries to ride at least a few miles every day and makes the trip to Sturgis once a year. He still has the beard and the earrings and the tattoos: a screaming devil wrapped in barbed wire on his neck, crosses on his fingers, a solid cascade of skulls running down one arm.

Every morning, the rumble from Potter’s Harley shatters the quiet of the pre-dawn dark as he makes his way to work. By 5:30 a.m., he begins to prep breakfast with a couple of volunteers, setting out cereals and cooking up potatoes. By 6 a.m., people start trickling through the doors, searching for a warm place to stay.

Potter knows every nook and cranny of the downtown facility. Framed certificates of achievement and gratitude fill his office walls. More are piled on his desk, but there’s no space left to hang them. He walks through the dark basement warehouse while the lights are off without hesitation. His pride for the place is abundant. Here are the thousands of waterbottles ready to be shipped to any nearby emergency, he tells visitors. Here are the buckets of cleaning supplies, to be distributed to those whose houses are affected by flood or fire. Here are the food pantry shelves, currently sparse, but waiting to be restocked.“If I’m doing the Lord’s work, I don’t have full shelves,” he said.

The holiday season is Potter’s busiest. He works in the kitchen in the morning, then rings bells until it’s time to start cooking dinner. By the the time he’s back on his bike to go home, he’s worked a 15-hour day. He hasn’t had a day off since mid-November, he said. He’s rang the red bell in sleet and wind and rain. The clanging of the bell creeps into his dreams some nights.

His past and its remaining physical markers help him connect with the people he helps. They feel comfortable talking to him about the complexities of their lives, he said. They know he won’t judge them.

The work can wear on a person, Potter said. It becomes difficult to be endlessly strong for those who come to him. Working with so much human suffering can take a toll. Potter finds strength in the other Salvation Army staff. He finds fulfillment in taking the hands of a person in need and joining them in prayer.

Now in his 50s, Potter looks forward to the simple joys of life. He wants to see LeBron James play ball in Cleveland. He spends time with his granddaughters, who call him Bobo. He fishes.

His work has also revealed a new side of his hometown. He marvels at how various nonprofits and businesses work together to make sure there is food for the hungry and coats for the cold. Grocery stores donate tons of food to the Salvation Army kitchen and food pantry. Organizations raise money and donate coats.

“You have no idea how this community steps up,” he said. “Nobody sees it, it’s all done behind the scenes. But I’ve never seen such a little town provide so much.”

On a recent Friday in the Salvation Army warehouse, Potter showed a homeless woman the coat room. She briefly looked through the hundreds of jackets before pulling out a tan knee-length coat and a shorter red one. She paused, uncertain in her decision. She liked the red coat for the color — wouldn’t it be nice to have something bright? — but thought the tan would be warmer.

Potter halted her deliberations.“Take them both,” he said, convincing her that it was OK.As she walked out the door, Potter reminded her that she could come to him for anything. He would be there.

“God bless you,” he called. “Whatever you need.”

Follow features editor Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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Features Editor

Elise Schmelzer joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 after graduating from the University of Missouri and interning at newspapers around the country. As features editor, she oversees arts and culture coverage and reports stories on a broad variety of topics.

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