updated 06/09/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/09/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT
It's all about Hal Reichie, an Army helicopter pilot who died at 27 during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Known for his infectious spirit and generosity, Reichie has inspired a growing band of guerrilla do-gooders who perform furtive and cunning acts of kindness—in Reichle's name, not their own. These stealthy Samaritans aren't changing lives: They tend to pick up dinner checks, pay bills or paint a garage or two. But in almost all cases their anonymous gifts bring lasting smiles and good feelings. "We plant seeds of happiness," says Roger Cram, 58, Reichle's close friend and now the informal head of the Secret Society of Serendipitous Service to Hal, or SSSSH. "We hope to have the whole world pulling Reichles."
The group has no dues, membership roll or meeting schedule. To be a part of it, one simply performs an anonymous good deed and describes it in a letter to Cram, who includes it in a newsletter he circulates among some 300 of Reichle's friends and family. "No signature or return address on the letters," insists Cram, "or else we throw them away." SSSSH has received dozens of notes from several states, including one from a person who used a disability check to buy refreshments for work-release prisoners cutting grass and another from someone who bought cable TV for a paraplegic. "It's all very exciting," says Eric Buckman, 20, a Hiram College junior who reluctantly admits to being the guy who handed Mitchell $50. (A community-service activist, he also recently received the group's one official gift: the $3,500 Hal Reichle Memorial Scholarship, funded by Hiram College.) "I've never had more fun than I had turning over that envelope."
That zest for giving would have thrilled Reichle, selfless even as a child growing up in suburban Cleveland. "His summer-camp director told me he'd never met a boy as generous as Hal," says his father, Wayne Reichle, 76. "He was always helping other kids." In 1985 Reichle, then a Marine reservist, sought out Cram, a student-loan officer and part-time flight instructor, for flying lessons. The two became friends, giving Cram an up-close view of Reichle's uncommon kindness. "One night he made fun of my old garbage cans," says Cram. "The next day, they were replaced by three shiny new ones. Hal denied doing it, but I knew different."
Reichle touched many lives in the same quiet way: He painted homes while families were on vacation, snuck groceries onto front porches and persuaded a banker to give a used-car loan to a needy pal. While on a nighttime reconnaissance mission during the first Gulf War, Reichle died when his helicopter crashed. (His widow, Arrica, has since remarried.)
Not much later, the giving began. Cram and a few recruits started over-tipping tired waitresses, paying highway tolls for puzzled drivers and picking up fast-food drive-through tabs. Some deeds didn't produce the desired results: After members washed a filthy car in a parking lot, they watched as its owner walked around unable to identify it. Still, says Reichle's father, "it warms my heart to know that others remember Hal as I do."
Reichlites recently spent an entire day spreading cheer around Hiram. After befuddling Mitchell in the supermarket checkout line, four members scraped, primed and painted Ann O'Connell's rundown garage. (They cooked up a ruse about an injured squirrel to get the animal lover out of her house.) Next, the group planted flowers outside a housing project. And finally, they paid the check for a young couple they spied in a restaurant.
Small gestures, big payoffs. Cram explains that helping others helps him keep his friend's memory alive. "Hal makes people laugh and forget their troubles," he says, referring to Reichle as if he were still around. "I don't believe in hocus-pocus," Cram says, "but sometimes I think he still is here."
David Searls in Hiram