CARTHAGE, Mo. — Christmas decorations, traditional carols, a reading of the Christmas story and a little bit of Elvis will be on display as The Duke Mason Band takes the stage this weekend at Memorial Hall for the annual Steve Benjamin Memorial Benefit Concert.
The concert has a new day and time — 3 p.m., Sunday, instead of the traditional Saturday evening time slot — that the performer and planners hope will give more people the chance to enjoy and participate.
“I’m hoping since it’s during the daytime, maybe some of those people who don’t like to go out at night, they can get out and hang out with us,” said Duke Mason, lead performer. “Of course, we play Christmas songs. There will be some that you are familiar with and some that maybe you aren’t familiar with, and we try to put our own twist on everything. As usual, sometimes even other non-Christmas songs creep in. It’s not uncommon for us to play ‘Wipe Out’ at the Christmas show because everyone wants to hear it. All the guys will be decked out in their Christmas suits, as we’ve done the past few years.”
The concert is a benefit for the Carthage Police Department’s annual LaVerne Williams Memorial Christmas Party for Kids, slated this year for Saturday, Dec. 14, also at Memorial Hall.
Cheryle Finley, who heads planning for the annual Memorial Christmas Party, said the concert is vital because it raises money, collects toys and raises awareness of the party, which is hosted by the Carthage Police Department for children.
Admission to the concert is a $10 unwrapped toy for an elementary-age child or a cash donation. Last year, the concert collected several large tables full of toys and more than $1,600 in donations.
“The police department invited over 400 children to the party this year, and the need for donations is as great as ever,” Finley said. “Every child that attends goes home with at least one gift. The support of the community we receive every year is so important for this, and we appreciate that support so much.”
This will be the 44th annual LaVerne Williams Memorial Christmas Party for children, and Finley said organizers will be reevaluating the party and who attends after this year’s event.
At one time, about 900 children were invited to the event, and the number of children who attended was so large the party itself was divided into two separate gatherings. But that was back when the five elementary schools in Carthage served kindergarten through sixth grade.
The Carthage School District has reorganized, and the elementary schools now only go up to fourth grade. Next year, when the old Carthage High School on Main Street is converted to the Sixth Grade Center, elementary schools will serve only kindergarten through third grades.
“Starting next year, we’re going to reevaluate and see if we maybe need to make some changes so we can catch some more kids,” Finley said. “We need to reconsider where we are because it’s always been elementary school kids, and now elementary schools are only going to be four grades next year.”
Every child who attends the party gets at minimum a $10 gift card and a toy. Children also get a bag of candy, and they are served refreshments. Also given away are a number of bicycles and a video game system as a grand prize.
The Carthage Fire Department pays to rent the hall for both events every year with money raised at the Maple Leaf Pancake Feed.
Students with the Carthage Junior High Leadership Council also volunteer, helping seat attendees and hand out toys during the drawing.
Honoring special people
Mason said the first concert the band held 12 years ago coincided with the death of his father-in-law, Steve Benjamin, so the group decided to honor him with the concert.
The party is named for LaVerne Williams, a Carthage Police Detective who died 10 years ago. Williams planned the party for more than 30 years and is credited with creating the event, although he said before he died that other Carthage officers were holding Christmas parties for kids before he came to the department in the 1970s.
Mason said Williams asked him if the band would perform at the party.
“We didn’t know about the party at the time, and we were just blown away to see all those kids fill that place up,” Mason said. “It was amazing, and once we did it, he didn’t have to ask again. We were hooked. Everyone always says it — and it might sound cliche — but when you can do something to help someone else out during Christmas time, especially during Christmas time, what else can you ask for?”
Retired Carthage Police Officer Doug Dickey wrote a history of the department, and in his research he found reports in The Carthage Evening Press that police began holding an “underprivileged children’s Christmas party” in December 1959, which would mean the event would be 60 years old this year.
“Officers have always donated their time to the cause, but none so much as the late LaVerne Williams, whose name is now attached to the festivities,” Dickey wrote in his book.