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Christmas greetings

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Salvation Army Major Stanley Senak collects at Fosters in Greenfield.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Salvation Army Major Stanley Senak collects at Fosters in Greenfield.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Salvation Army Major Stanley Senak collects at Fosters in Greenfield.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    Salvation Army Major Stanley Senak collects at Fosters in Greenfield.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Salvation Army Major Stanley Senak collects at Fosters in Greenfield.
  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>Salvation Army Major Stanley Senak collects at Fosters in Greenfield.

GREENFIELD — On a Tuesday afternoon exactly one week before Christmas, Salvation Army Maj. Stanley Senak stood in the same place he has been for the past 10 holiday seasons — near the exit inside Foster’s Super Market, clutching a tambourine filled with loose change.

A woman passed with her grocery bags, stopping on her way out to drop a $1 bill into the tambourine.

“Thank you,” exclaimed Senak, as a huge smile spread across his face. “Have a good Christmas.”

On every Monday, Tuesday and Saturday from the week before Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, Senak stations himself at Foster’s, beginning around 8 a.m. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, he’s in Athol, assisting with the Salvation Army there.

Dressed in a shirt and tie with a Salvation Army jacket and hat, the 78-year-old Orange resident stands in place until late afternoon collecting money for the Greenfield worship and community center — taking breaks only when another officer arrives to relieve him at his post.

Now in his 59th year with the Salvation Army and his 11th representing the organization’s annual kettle drive at Foster’s, Senak’s presence near the store’s exit has become synonymous with Christmas time.

“He’s an absolutely wonderful person,” said Novalee Norwood, Foster’s front-end supervisor. “He’s part of the family.”

Customers come to talk to him or ask for advice. Their conversation comes with a firm promise of confidentiality, said Senak. Not even a $25 bribe from a husband who was dying to know what his wife said, was able to get Senak to spill details, he said.

Employees wander over during their breaks to hear a Christmas joke or try to solve his newest riddle. A bag of candy rests close within Senak’s reach, in case any sugar lovers, young or old, happen to be walking by.

“Do you know what Santa Claus’ favorite doughnut is?” asked Senak, unable to hide a huge grin.

“It’s a jolly doughnut,” he exclaimed with a chuckle.

On the rare days Senak is sick and unable to stand at his post, people want to know why. Calls come into Senak’s home or to the Salvation Army, from customers who miss him and want to make sure he is doing alright.

“Anybody who knows him can see how much he loves God, and loves to help other people,” said Capt. Dan Brunelle, who runs the Greenfield worship and community center and has known Senak for about 11 years.

Senak’s earliest experiences with the Salvation Army trace back to his toddler days in the 1930s, when he lived in poverty with his six older siblings in the then-small community of Bristol, Conn.

By the time he was 4, both his parents were dead. Salvation Army officers came to his home to drop off food, but his oldest brother refused their aid.

“We were lucky if we got a meal a day,” said Senak, who said he chewed on his shoe to fight off the hunger.

When he was 20, he began attending Salvation Army services with friends — running from the end of his 8 a.m. Catholic Mass to make it in time for the Salvation Army’s service at 9 a.m.

He soon began attending a Salvation Army training college — a decision that caused his family, of devout Catholics, to disown him.

But Senak’s Catholic priest at the time told him he should follow wherever God was leading him. In the training college, Senak said that path was taking him toward youth services — helping young people that were living in similar, almost unbearable, situations to the one he had been in.

On an assignment in New York in the late 1950s, he met his wife, Sandra Haskins, who was working at a hospital for the Salvation Army. They married and had seven children, moving from place to place as they received new assignments across the Northeast.

He worked his way up to the title of major — serving along the way in various roles such as chaplains of a fire station and a youth detention center.

He retired in the early 1980s, moving with his wife to Lexington, Ky. They lived there for 10 years before moving back to Orange, Sandra’s hometown.

Senak and his wife temporarily came out of retirement 11 years ago to fill a vacancy and manage the Greenfield Salvation Army’s holiday services. The next year, Senak began his post in Foster’s and has been there every year since.

In the store, there is an empty chair to the left of where Senak stands — once sat in by his wife during Christmas seasons past.

She died of breast cancer in 2009. Senak wears a pink breast cancer pin on the left side of his uniform.

In the winter before her death, Senak was reluctant to continue the kettle ministry. His wife insisted that he had to continue.

“I wanted to stay home with her,” he said, “And she said, ‘Hey, your job is at Foster’s.’”

Senak considers his job at Foster’s to not only be one of fundraising for the Salvation Army, but to do his part to spread happiness. He wants to help others remember, around Christmas, how great life can be.

“Go back on your memories, the good times, and you won’t get lonely,” said Senak. “Don’t take life for granted.”

With a hand pointed toward the sky, he said that he will be ready whenever, in a common expression of the Salvation Army, he “gets promoted to Glory.”

On a Christmas nearly 40 years ago, Senak lay in a Syracuse hospital bed, ill with hepatitis. His prognosis was bleak.

He can remember closing his eyes and suddenly floating among clouds. He said he saw a light and began heading toward it, before awaking the next moment in the hospital room.

He had died for a moment before he was resuscitated, the doctors later told him.

“When people talk about death, I look forward to it,” he said. “If it’s that beautiful, I have no fear.”

For now, he is happy to continue doing whatever he can to help the Salvation Army and the people it serves.

That has spread to his children: three of them are officers in the Salvation Army, and there may be a fourth soon, he said. Others volunteer at events or drives.

With a week to go before Christmas, Senak looked through the window in Foster’s and pointed out people he knew, who were approaching the store from the parking lot.

Another familiar face dropped money into his tambourine.

“Thank you buddy,” said Senak, with a smile. “Good to see you.”

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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