Flags will be lowered Friday at all county buildings in honor of a man who was larger than life, who gave to his county, state and nation during a lifetime of service and whose passing is being mourned by countless family, friends and colleagues preparing to lay him to rest Saturday.
John Alvin Blanton, a well-known and loved local figure across Sampson County, passed away Sunday at the VA Hospital in Fayetteville at the age of 74 after battling health problems for the last couple years.
“John will be missed sorely. Sampson County has been blessed to have him here as an educator and a commissioner,” said county commissioner Jarvis McLamb, who served with Blanton on the Sampson County board for 14 years. “We saw things differently sometimes but when things came up, he could always read my mind and I could read his. We had our differences but we were always close friends. We would talk things out.”
That was the kind of man Blanton was. He had a diplomatic mind and would always listen to the other side of an issue, Republican McLamb said of his Democrat colleague.
“He’s an individual who you might not disagree with on some things, but he’s always listen and he’d always talk things out,” McLamb attested.
Board of Commissioners chairman Jefferson Strickland also knew Blanton as a member of the board, but well before that.
“I knew him as a principal, a town commissioner at Roseboro, as a (school) assistant superintendent and, on top of that, he was a customer of ours when we had the car business,” Strickland said.
Back then, Blanton and his children would come down to Strickland’s dealership to purchase their cars. Sometimes Blanton would send his children down, tell them to talk to Mr. Strickland to work something out and then come back to their father so he could meet with Strickland to handle the paperwork.
It was a relationship of respect and trust.
“We have always trusted each other and had that kind of relationship,”Strickland said.
And the two worked together on various projects across the county, from the planting of crepe myrtles in front of Lakewood High School as part of a beautification project to securing additional funding to make Western District Park in Roseboro a reality. They also were members on various committees together seeking to bring growth to Sampson County.
“He would do anything to make Sampson County a better place to live and work,” Strickland said.
While he had a fondness for the Lakewood district and Roseboro area, Blanton felt just as responsible for those in Union, Garland and other areas across the county, especially the young students, many of which knew him, loved him and were the beneficiaries of his guidance through the years, Strickland noted.
“He was probably the best known man in Sampson County,” Strickand asserted. “He was known by everyone, old and young, men and women alike. And it wasn’t ‘hey John’ — they all called him Mr. Blanton.”
Blanton lived a life of service, not just at the local level, but to his state and country. A proud U.S. Army veteran, Blanton came to Sampson County 57 years ago and through the decades served as an educator and principal with Sampson County Schools, including at Charles E. Perry, as well as a Sampson County commissioner for the fourth district from 1996 to 2012.
In that time, he has served his community on countless committees that ran the gamut from education and child development to law enforcement and courthouse security to economic development, health and social services issues.
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton noted Blanton’s efforts in securing grant money for the Sheriff’s Office and his tireless dedication to the department. Speaking to Blanton at the end of 2012, Thornton called him a “fair and reasonable man,” who went the extra mile to ensure Sampson’s citizens “reaped the benefits of a responsible government.”
“You are an amazing man,” he said then. “You have had the opportunity to influence more lives through your service to God, country, family, friends and neighbors than anyone else I know. Whether it was through serving in the Army, teaching our children or helping lead our community, your fingerprints have been cemented in many lives in a good way.”
The sheriff said Blanton’s roles as soldier, educator and leader have acted to inspire so many that would, in turn, pass that inspiration to others. Upon Blanton’s passing, Thornton asked for prayers for the family and said he would treasure the memories and friendship he shared with a great man.
“Mr. Blanton loved Sampson County and the citizens he served,” Thornton stated. “He was a positive influence in the lives of many Sampsonians as they passed through Sampson County public schools. I am proud to have been able to call John Blanton my friend.”
Assistant county manager Susan Holder shared those sentiments.
“I will always think of Commissioner Blanton as a gentle giant of a man — not in girth, but in heart and vision and passion for service to others,” she remarked. “We used to tease him about his appetite for good food, but his biggest appetite was for public service, whether it was as a veteran, an educator, a commissioner or a committee member.”
She always respected Blanton’s “no-nonsense approach” to his governance.
“He listened to staff and his colleagues, asked whatever questions he needed to, then without hesitation made a decision that he felt was in the best interest of the citizens,” she said.
“Personally, I always enjoyed working with him — his Southern gentlemanly ways especially — but my admiration grew when I learned that he had dropped out of high school to help his mother raise six brothers and two sisters, yet later earned multiple degrees and achieved many personal accomplishments,” Holder noted.
At Blanton’s final county board meeting in November 2012, he was honored by his fellow commissioners and county staff for a lifetime of service, not just to the county, but to its schools and his nation.
Blanton’s daughter Kim said it meant the world to him, and to his family.
“Sampson County has accepted my father, allowed him to serve. Your encouragement, your motivation, even your constructive criticisms, have all been a blessing to us as a family,” she said at the time. “My dad has enjoyed the parades, the fish frys, all the groundbreakings, the parades — did I say the parades? — I think he does know everyone in Sampson County. We can’t go anywhere and just leave. So, on behalf of my family, especially my mother who is his traveling partner, thank you from the depths of my heart.”
Many attested that Blanton’s passing would leave a great void in Sampson County. And, as much as they loved him, he loved them back. He said as much during his last public comments as a commissioner in November 2012.
“I came here in 1957 and I have not regretted it one bit,” an emotional Blanton said to a packed county auditorium. “This is where I met my wife and this is where I stayed, and I am very proud of that. Thank you all for having me in Sampson County and making things so wonderful for me.”
Blanton is survived by his wife, Ellen Blanton and their five children. Public visitation will take place from 12-8 p.m. Friday with the family present from 6-8 p.m. at Brock Memorial & Worley Funeral Home in Clinton. The funeral will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 14, at Lakewood High School, Salemburg.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Patients Care Services of the Fayetteville VA Medical Center, Fayetteville, N.C. 28301 c/o Dr. Joyce A Hines.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.