A Lifetime Contributing to our Community

Story and photos by Meredith Bernard

After being greeted with a firm handshake and hearty smile, I recently sat across a table from Person County native Melvin Hamlett and began hearing his life story. It didn’t take long to realize how this man has garnered a respected reputation that’s left a mark on his community and beyond. Growing up on a tobacco farm, like so many others in the greater Roxboro area, Melvin learned from an early age the value of hard work. Sixty-some years later, he still carries those lessons with him.

He says he walked many a mile in the shadow of his farmer-grandfather’s footsteps for the majority of his childhood. Most of those miles were trod under the roof of the Pass family tobacco warehouse, where his granddad worked for 40 years. Melvin recalls with a warm smile how well Mr. Pass and his family treated him and his granddad. As a 10th grader, Melvin preferred to spend his time after school alongside his grandfather, and at 15 was offered his first paid job at the warehouse that was already like his second home. He was proud to earn money doing what he loved with people he highly respected and who in turn respected his abilities and drive. His jobs included loading and unloading trucks and running tobacco across the scales.

When Melvin wasn’t with his granddad or in school, he was playing sports — and he says he was good at them. He held the high jump track record for his high school for many years, and also played football and basketball. To the dismay of his mother, he decided to forgo a full athletic scholarship to Elon College (University) in order to continue working full time at the tobacco warehouse after he graduated high school. Looking back, he says a part of him wishes he had continued his education, but he didn’t let his decision stop him from pursuing other dreams or getting ahead in life without a college degree.

He’s especially proud to be the first Black man he knows of in the county and possibly the state to be given the job of weighing tobacco on the scales. He worked hard to gain trust and respect by doing his job to the best of his ability and was rewarded for it. In doing so, he helped open the door for others to earn the same rights at a time when people in many parts of the country were struggling to gain them.

When asked what it was like growing up as a Black male in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in a small, rural, southern town, Melvin says, “It wasn’t bad. People in my community were accepting and treated me with respect.”

Over the years, Melvin gained more and more responsibility at the warehouse, including opening and closing. Some days there would be six separate sales to prepare, run and clean up, meaning a whole lot of work. He recalls the day then-Governor Jim Martin came to visit the warehouse and the excitement and honor that came with having such a high official visit — as well as all the preparation for the event. It was a momentous time for the small town and he was proud to have been there to share in it.

At the age of 18, while working full-time, Melvin also began working part-time as a referee for county middle and high school recreational basketball. This endeavor eventually branched out to statewide college basketball refereeing, which he did for 15 years. He says he’s refereed most every child in the county who has played over the last 40 years and in doing so, has formed lasting relationships with many families in the area. His refereeing jobs have taken him many places and, he admits, took him away from his own two children more often than he would have liked at times. Even so, he’s proud of his career and still continues going strong, although it has taken a toll on his body. The strain of keeping up with athletes on the court caused him to need knee surgery, but hasn’t kept him from continuing to do the job he loves.

When the Pass family sold their tobacco warehouses, Melvin followed them and moved into a management position at the Family Lawn and Garden business they bought in the mid 1990s. He recollects how the Passes always treated him like family, and laughed while telling me about the first time they invited him to their home for a party. He asked Mr. Pass what he would be expected to do, and was told he would be expected to eat and have a good time with everyone else.

The business was sold to Danny Talbert in the fall of 1999, and Melvin continued to work for the company in the garden center. Melvin has never met a stranger and between his previous work and time spent refereeing, he knows the majority of customers who walk through the landscape center’s doors. He considers his customers, as well as co-workers, family. Through the years, he’s learned a lot, not only about the field of work he does, but about how to build lasting relationships.

Melvin says he misses the way things used to be, in regards to respect given in turn for respect received. He says he can’t say enough good things about the people, especially the Pass and Talbert families, who gave him opportunities to grow and further his careers, always treated him like family, and showed him appreciation for a job well done. For Melvin, the respect he has been given over the years is what taught him to always give it to others. The golden rule of treating others the way you want to be treated runs deep in and through his life and is emulated in how he looks at and treats those he comes in contact with.

In addition to serving his community through the basketball court and landscape center, Melvin is also heavily involved in his place of worship at Hyco Zion Baptist Church. As anyone can relate, Melvin freely admits he hasn’t always done things exactly as he should and there are things in life he wishes he’d done differently. But he’s at peace with where he is now and says a lot of that is thanks not only to God, but to his mother and church family being there to support him.

He says his mother always had him in church while growing up, but not until the last 15 years or so did he really grow spiritually. In 2006, he made the decision to become an ordained deacon and even though his mother passed before this happened, he says he has no doubt she would be extremely proud of his continued commitment to his faith and church family.

When asked if he has plans to retire, he said with a grin, “No time soon.” He still enjoys his time refereeing, loves his store manager position and his time on the road driving the delivery truck for Landscape Supply & Rentals in Roxboro. He says as long as he can keep doing both to the best of his ability, he will.

Things and times may have changed from the way they were 40 or 50 years ago, but with people like Melvin Hamlett continuing to contribute to their community in the way he does, with the compassion and commitment he has for people and life in general, there’s plenty of hope for the future.

Thanks to Landscape Supply & Rentals of Roxboro for making this story possible.

969 Old Durham Rd
Roxboro, NC 27573
(336) 599-8398

Meredith Bernard is a photographer, writer and farmer living and working with her husband and two children on a beef cattle farm in Milton, NC. Connect with her online at thisfarmwife.com and YouTube at ThisFarmWife.com/youtube.

Click here to read more stories by Meredith Bernard!