John Dalzell: The street angel who raised £1.5m towards care of the terminally ill
Newry's answer to Belfast's Black Santa, John Dalzell has announced the end of his annual Christmas fundraising vigil for the local hospice after 25 years. He tells Joanne Sweeney that after helping to raise nearly £1.5m, he'll still be supporting the fundraising effort
FOR those who believe in angels, they come in all shapes and sizes and make their presence felt at a time when you least expect it. If you asked the fundraising team at the Southern Area Hospice in Newry about John Dalzell, they would say that the Co Armagh man is an angel – a million-pound angel.
The 75-year-old from Bessbrook became a 'street' angel in 1991 and he went on to become a household name in the town and district.
John started his own annual Christmas sit-out in the town's Hill Street after being inspired by the annual Black Santa Christmas appeal of Dean Sammy Crook and his successors in front of Belfast Cathedral.
The hospice provides care free of charge to people with cancer and other terminal illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, motor neurone disease, HIV and Aids within the Southern health trust area.
Through his legendary fundraising efforts, which have seen him outdoors at all hours, during rain, hail and snow, John has managed to raise £1.45 million to help towards the running costs of the Newry hospice over the past 25 years.
Now, after handing over another £73,655 to the hospice for the 2016 collection, he has announced that he will be stepping down from his annual charity event. Reassuringly, though, he really hasn't gone away, you know.
"It's not the end of my fundraising for the hospice but it is the end of the John Dalzell Christmas sit-out as it used to be," says John as we chat in the hospice's fundraising centre, Fern House. "I've never missed a year, and thankfully I never had any sickness or anything like that to hold me back.
"But I'm just not as fit for it as I used to be so I won't be out all day in all weathers in the coming years – although it will give me a chance to spend a few hours to get out and about and talk to the other collectors and supporters each year.
"My family tell me that I'll really miss it and they won't be able to live with me next Christmas."
He adds jokingly of Lily, his wife of 54 years: "She said, 'Sure, would you not do it for 52 weeks of the year?'
"My family has backed me all the way every year and every Christmas Day I'm absolutely shattered after it all," John says. "To think that in 25 years I don't know what it's like to walk down the street with my children and grandchildren during Christmas week...
"But then, the support that I got from them has been brilliant. As they all grew up, they started to help me, grandsons and grand daughters, even their husbands as well."
To John, raising money for others, no matter their colour or creed, was something that he was raised to do.
When he began to court Lily in his late teens, he joined the local Salvation Army, whose father was a leading member of the Christian charitable organisation. As his love for Lily grew, John, a father-of-three and grandfather-of-seven, also discovered a latent love for music and bands.
"When you are in the Salvation Army, you automatically go and play in the band and raise money each night they play, so I was well used to shaking a bucket around the town. Their slogan is 'You help us, we help others', so you didn't really know that you were raising money as it was just part and parcel of what we did," explains John.
He went on to raise money for the local Cancer Research branch and other individual charity efforts and in time became known for his fundraising.
"Whenever I would come down the street in Newry, they would be saying ‘As soon as you see John Dalzell, you go for your pocket because he's collecting again'," he says.
When in 1991 he went to see Sister Theresa, the then matron of the hospice, about doing the sit-out later that year, there was no concern in his mind that the hospice might be there for only one side of the community.
"I still don't see that and I never did," emphases John. “It was just the way that I was brought up because in my mind there's no such as thing as Protestant and Catholic as God made us all.
"I used to wear a bright read fishing suit early on to keep me warm, then I changed to a high-vis orange suit like the roadworks men wear. I was desperate for keeping people going, no matter what religion there were, and I would say to them that I was the only Orange man allowed down Hill Street.
"It was always a great bit of craic. You couldn't have done the job if you weren't a sociable person.
"I was always humbled by the trust the people had in me to look after their money. I always say that I was only a postbox for the hospice as it was handier for them to give me money in Hill Street rather than to make their way up to Courtney Hill.
"Everyone gave me money and had a tale to tell at how their family was helped by the hospice. And there was so many people behind the scenes all through the years – too many to name – who helped me in big ways and small ways, like the collectors and the money counters at my church, Sandy's Street Presbyterian Church, and all the bands who used to come and play in the evenings.
"Even the children from the St Paul's High School in Bessbrook where I drove a bus for the education board for the last 27 years, and all the other schools, knew about the collection and would raise money for it."
The first year John's sit-out raised £6,700, which at that time went towards the hospice's running costs of around £200,000 per year. Another year, the appeal went on to raise the biggest annual amount raised – £110,000.
John recalls choosing Hill Street as his main site, saying, "There was never anyone who went down the town in Newry at Christmas without going into Hill Street into Woolworths. It used to be so busy but then it got to the stage that you would hardly see any shoppers on the street after 4pm so we had to move out to other sites such as the shopping centres and B&Q."
And while John, his family and friends may laugh off the notion that the straight-talking, craic-loving man is an angel, there's no doubt that many of those who have passed on, and their surviving loved ones, have been helped greatly by his charity efforts.
As ever, more and more money is needed. This year the fundraising department has to raise £2.5m to maintain the level of care currently available at the Courtney Hill centre.
"We can't say enough about him. John's our one in a million," says fundraising manager Majella Gollogly. "We wouldn't have been able to raise that amount of money on our own. The money that John would raise normally comes into us in January or February and that's a great boost for the fundraising team as we go back to naught at the end of the year.
"Apart from the financial contribution, which is fabulous, the one thing it also helped to do was to bring the hospice out into the community and to make people aware of the service, making it a service that you can talk about without any stigma attached."
:: Donations to Southern Area Hospice can be made at www.justgiving.com/sahs/donate