By Bill McFadyen
All of us witness the passing of the giants. We receive news that some icon has died. The impact on our lives causes us to collectively pause and think what life was like with them and how the world will change without them.
Likewise, there are those who live and die in the shadows. The public at large never knows them. They dwelt inside that great mass of humanity that comes into the world of unknown parents and leaves the world in a most quiet way.
Felton Jefferson Smith was among the vast fraternity of those who most folks never know. For the fifty years when my life intersected with his, he lived just this side of the South River in Stedman. He recounted to me that he went to Armstrong School, as did all of his race on the east side in the 1930s. (I was always cognizant of that when I delivered my three children to that same school 65 or so years later.) I do not know if he graduated high school; I am certain that he did not attend college.
I do know that if his children desired to attend college, he and his wife, Miss Nadeen, found a way to send them there. I remember his daughter Jane and son Buddy the best. There were others I met through the years whose names Time has taken from me. Felton Smith was proud of their education and of their subsequent self-sufficiency. They were his legacy – what he felt he left for this world from his humble place in the shadows.
I also know that he did not have many choices for his life. I heard from his own mouth that a poor man of color in the ‘40s and ‘50s went to work or went “to the bad.” So Felton Smith, a very good man, went to work.
I am not sure of all the line items on FJ’s lifetime resume. The job that boosted him up the socioeconomic ladder a few rungs, though, was working third shift at Merita Bakery on Ramsey Street for at least a couple of decades. And I know that after he got off work at seven for most of those years, he probably caught a nap and a mouthful to eat before making his way to McFadyen Music at 513 Gillespie Street, where we just called him “Smith.” He was hired by my dad somewhere around the time I was born. I think he left for a short time, but very likely those college tuitions brought him back to that secondary job at the music store. In all the subsequent 35 or 40 years he spent at McFadyen Music, he never shirked a duty and he never caused drama.
Felton was a man for any task. He swept and took out trash. He delivered pianos. He unloaded trucks and manned the shipping table. He drove shuttles between stores in Fayetteville. Later, after we grew into ten cities, Felton headed up the interstate shuttle. From those travels, many new people came to know Smith and his integrity. Store managers and inventory clerks from Myrtle Beach to Asheville were always happy to see FJ back into their loading area. They knew that the paperwork would match the load. They knew he would not crank his truck again until what went on board matched the new paperwork. Smith always brought his best game.
The fact that Granddaddy was a farmer at heart played a part in my wanting a vegetable garden. It surely was not that I was hungry for the produce. I did not like anything I grew until I was in my mid-teens. At the time of that first garden, I was only six and finishing Miss Barnhill’s kindergarten class. To satiate my childhood whim of backyard farming, my dad sent Mr. Smith to the house with a shovel and a rake. Of all the things one experiences in a lifetime, it is fascinating what few things we remember versus the vastness of what we forget. I never shall forget the sound of Smith’s shovel cutting the matted sod and slicing the gritty soil along the white fence that bordered our backyard. I never will forget the tone of Smith’s voice speaking to this little boy about how to make a row and space a seed. I will never forget the thin frame of that darkish man with sweat on his brow or the joy he seemed to share with little me over the future that would come about because of this rectangular dirt patch.
I started working at McFadyen Music when I was 13. I answered to many people. One of them was Felton Smith. I would sit on the motor box of the 1960-something Chevy van with the three-on-the-tree manual shift between Smith and his counterpart, Dennis McNair of Cedar Creek. My job was to roll the dolly under the piano or to roll it out whenever they lifted. I was mostly unnecessary. I think Dad sent me for exposure to their wisdom more than for my contribution. I think he wanted me to gain empathy for the world inhabited by men like Dennis and Smith.
A decade passed and I came back to McFadyen Music holding a leathery briefcase. Dennis McNair had died on the job while I was away. FJ, now solely employed by McFadyen Music, answered to me. He stayed with us to the corporate end, when Pop sold the company in 2000. Maybe he even stayed another year or two, but the changes in the business culture made it easy for him to retire.
You see, to a very large degree, Felton was our corporate culture. He represented the very best of what my dad wanted our company to be.
I cannot tell you how many times I would unlock the store in the morning, make my rounds flicking light switches and thermostat needles only to find on some desk or countertop the penny that Felton had swept up the previous afternoon. He did not know to whom that penny belonged, but he knew it was not his. Therefore, he left it in plain sight in case its owner came looking for it.
I can tell you how many times he called Miss Nadeen before he left in those evenings. Every time. He would dial, she would answer, and he would say, exactly, “Anything?” If Miss Nadeen needed goods from town, Felton would fetch them on his way home.
I can also tell you exactly how many people from the historical world of McFadyen Music paused the moment they heard that Felton Jefferson Smith was no longer of this world. Every single one. That is not cliché – that is fact. He was universally loved in his smallish universe.
The most famous episode from Felton’s life at McFadyen Music was in the early ‘70s when Dennis and he were delivering a piano to Robeson County. Dennis was in a hurry, as he usually was. Felton was lounging on the passenger side. Dennis passed a loaded pulpwood truck on Camden Road, probably going much too fast. At the old intersection of Camden Road and Hope Mills Road, Dennis suddenly found himself facing a head-on collision with a car going toward Fayetteville. Dennis screamed. As Felton bolted upright, he saw the car rocketing toward him and knew in that horrible instant that his life on earth was likely over. He shouted out loud, “Great God a-mighty, have mercy!”
The next conscious moment that Felton could recount after that instinctive invoking of the Lord was seeing the driver of the pulpwood truck leaning out his window gaping in disbelief at Dennis and Smith barreling back toward Fayetteville on Camden Road. Felton said he knew that man had no idea how the piano truck that just passed him going south could be headed back north in such a split-second turnaround. When Dennis and Smith pulled over, collected themselves and crept south again, they stopped at the fateful intersection. There were no car parts in the road, no skid marks, and no sign of anything ever having happened.
Facing a fiery death, Felton shouted for God to have mercy, and Felton swore for all time thereafter that the Lord turned the truck around. I believe him to this day.
Well, the Lord did it one more time on October 8, 2017. He turned Felton Jefferson Smith’s truck around and away from old age and frailty and infirmity and drove it to a place of blissful eternity.
Meanwhile in my Eastover garden, the okra was still blossoming.