Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press Carlos Dempsey, a welder at Callahan Mechanical Contractors, is the recipient of this month's Jefferson Award. For more than 30 years, he has provided bicycles to needy children at Christmas.
In 18 years on the job, only one child has ever seen him.
The project takes him all year, but it's that one day -- Christmas -- that makes it all worthwhile.
Carlos Dempsey salvaged his first children's bicycle in 1993 when his good friend took custody of his grandchildren but couldn't afford to buy them bikes for Christmas. Dempsey, a welder and sheet metal worker, sent his wife to Hixson to buy three used bikes, and he set to work fixing them up.
At midnight on Christmas Eve, Dempsey delivered the bikes to his friend's front porch, and no one was the wiser.
It wasn't long before word got out, and neighbors and churches were calling, asking Dempsey if he could find Christmas bicycles for needy children in their lives.
And thus, a Secret Santa was born.
Dempsey, this month's local Jefferson Award recipient, himself only had one new bicycle growing up. He got it for Christmas when he was 12 -- six weeks after his father died.
"I know what it's like to be poor and have a brand-new bicycle to ride," he said. "Nothing beats that."
About 10 years ago, it became too time-consuming to repair old bikes, so Dempsey's quest now is for new bicycles only. He receives donations year-round and spends between $8,000 to $10,000 on bikes, usually beginning in about October.
"If I'm coming close to Christmas and I'm out of money, it comes out of my own pocket," he said.
Lindy Richards, manager of Rumors Restaurant and Lounge in Hixson, has organized an auction fundraiser for Dempsey the last several Octobers. Her own son, Zachary, now 18, got a bike from Dempsey about seven years ago.
"It isn't something he wants to be glorified for. ... He just touched our hearts, especially me -- I'm a single mom, and he brought my son a bike," she said. "He deserves all the credit in the world for the happiness he gives to those children's lives."
This past Christmas, Dempsey gave out about 200 bikes, and this year they came with winter coats for each child "so they could be warm when they're riding," he said.
Dempsey said he isn't quite sure how so many people find him every year to request bikes -- he's even had someone call him from Denver -- but he makes sure to do an informal background check on each one to make sure they're worthy.
Though he gets offers every year to help deliver the bikes on Christmas Eve, he tries to do most of it himself.
Driving trucks borrowed from his employer, Callahan Mechanical Contractors, Dempsey makes his way from Dalton, Ga., to Cleveland, Tenn., to Whitwell, Tenn., and everywhere in between, secretly delivering bicycles.
"This story isn't about me, it's about the kids. It's about needy children," he said. "Probably 65 percent of the kids I gave to last year, the bike and coat I gave them is the only Christmas gift they got."
And at the risk of being discovered, Dempsey's greatest joy comes on Christmas, when he drives back to the same houses and watches his gift recipients riding their new bikes all around their neighborhoods.
"I've seen them out in the rain, snow ... this year I had to wait until the day after Christmas -- I couldn't get out of my driveway," he said, referring to Chattanooga's white Christmas.
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Visit www.timesfreepress.com or www.WRCBTV.com to fill out an online nomination form. Pick up a nomination form at any First Tennessee Bank location and deliver or mail to: Chattanooga Times Free Press P.O. Box 1447 Chattanooga, TN 37401 or fax to: 423-668-5001.
ABOUT THE AWARDS
The Jefferson Awards were restarted locally in May by the Chattanooga Times Free Press, WRCB-TV and First Tennessee Bank. Monthly award nominations will be taken until March, when a local committee will select five honorees whose stories will be submitted to award officials in Washington, D.C. One of the award winners will be chosen to represent Chattanooga in the nation's capital for the national Jefferson Awards banquet.
Since 1972, the awards have been presented on the local and national levels. Each year, a national winner is selected in four categories: elected or public officials, private citizens, people benefiting the disadvantaged and individuals 35 or younger.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...