John Blanton, the longest-sitting Sampson County commissioner who will officially retire from his post next month after 16 years, was honored for his service to the county during a heartfelt presentation at Monday night’s meeting.
Blanton teared up at times, and laughed during others, as person after person — a dozen different people, including county staff, commissioners and professional acquaintances spoke — shared their gratitude to and love for the commissioner, educator and lifelong community proponent.
Blanton has battled health issues that have kept him away from nearly all meetings since early May, with the exception of a mid-July vote to break a stalemate on the budget. With commissioners and county staff unaware in recent weeks whether he would be able to return from his stay at the VA Medical Center in Fayetteville, Blanton showed Monday and was showered with messages of extreme gratitude and well-wishes for the future.
The longtime commissioner, first elected to represent District 5 in 1996, chose not to seek reelection this past May. Harry Parker, having won that primary, will swear the oath of office next month.
“We’re definitely going to miss Commissioner Blanton,” said Board of Commissioners chairman Billy Lockamy. “He’s been an honorable man. It’s remarkable what this man has accomplished in his lifetime.”
A U.S. Army veteran, Blanton came to Sampson County 55 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 commissioner. 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.
He has said his pride in Sampson County was immeasurable. The people of Sampson County said Monday the feeling was reciprocated.
Lockamy opened the floor for the commissioners, county staff and others to share their thoughts about the outgoing commissioner.
“We go back a long, long way,” said Commissioner Jefferson Strickland. “It was just a pleasure to sit down and work with you, put our minds together and come up with a common goal and figure out how we were going to do it. We all appreciate very much (you) as a commissioner, a person and a citizen as well. We thank you for what you’ve done for us, all of us.”
Commissioner Jarvis McLamb recalled when he came on the board that Blanton told him he was McLamb’s elder and he was supposed to look up to him. “I have all these years, and I find out now that I’m the oldest!” McLamb said.
“You’re right, you’re right,” Blanton said.
McLamb said he had the utmost respect for his friend.
“John and I go back several years, 14 of them I believe,” said McLamb. “We’ve had our differences, and we’ve had our times when we were together on a lot of things. I appreciate knowing John Blanton, and I believe there’s no other person in Sampson County who as many people know as John Blanton. I think every person in Sampson County knows you personally. Thank you John for what you’ve meant to our county.”
Commissioner Albert Kirby said most people might not know the full extent to which Blanton has served the county, both as a school administrator and commissioner. Kirby said he also felt Blanton was a mentor to many, himself included.
“It has been a pleasure sitting next to you my dear friend,” Kirby said. “Let me take this opportunity to thank you for your many years of service to Sampson County and the people of Sampson County. I have known you even before you were a commissioner, when you were a principal over at Roseboro and I was a student at Clinton High School. I always looked up to you and admired you. I most certainly have grown to admire you when I became a commissioner and realized how many challenges there are sitting in this chair. For you to have endured so long, it gives me a special appreciation.”
County manager Ed Causey said Blanton, very plainly and simply, was a big reason he was in Sampson County.
“When I chose to apply for the county manager’s job here three years ago, you were the epitome of what I thought a good commissioner was,” he said. “And it was because of the high value I put on you … that was one of the large reasons I was interested in coming to Sampson County.”
“Mr. Blanton, I’ll keep it brief because I don’t know if we can do this without tears,” added assistant manager Susan Holder. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to work for you. You’re such a gentleman. I will miss you.”
‘An amazing man’
Finance officer David Clack called Blanton “somebody that anybody can talk to” and someone employees countywide would miss seeing. He not only took an interest in their jobs, but he was very much a part of them, Clack said.
“I know the employees on my staff doing housing grants would need to go out to see a client, you would go right with them and tell them you’d help us out and you’d help them out and let everybody know just how it was,” he remarked. “We always knew where we stood with you and I’ve certainly enjoyed working with you and I know my staff has enjoyed working with you. Thank you so much for your service.”
“It’s been an honor to spend these years with you. We’ve had some good times and we’ve laughed.” said administrative assistant Leann Honeycutt, who noted Blanton’s weakness for sweets during meetings. “Every time I look at a miniature piece of candy, I think about you. I’ll miss you and I wish you the best.”
Jim Caldwell, with Mid-Carolina Council of Government, shared the same sentiment about his colleague and friend, who served the Mid-Carolina Council’s Board of Directors for the last decade.
“I have come to rely on him for his judgment and his knowledge, and I think the entire board and the other members of the Council of Government have,” said Caldwell. “I have the most respect for him of anyone that I have ever known. I thank him for his service to Mid-Carolina and his service to Sampson County.”
Sheriff Jimmy Thornton noted Blanton’s efforts in securing grant money for the Sheriff’s Office and his tireless dedication to the department. On behalf of the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department, Thornton thanked Blanton for his service and commitment to the county’s citizens.
“You’ve always been a fair and reasonable man, going the extra mile to facilitate changes or address needs in order to ensure that the citizens of Sampson County reap the benefits of a responsible government,” said Thornton. “You are an amazing man. 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.”
Thornton said he would not dare try to estimate the amount of souls Blanton inspired along the way — a number that would only continue to multiply.
“Although you’re stepping out of the public spotlight for the moment, I know your instinct to help your fellow man will continue in one way or another,” the sheriff said. “And on a personal note, Mr. Blanton, just because you’re stepping down doesn’t mean that I won’t still call you to tap into your wit and wisdom. You have worn many hats — soldier, educator and leader — however, I’ll always consider the most important role you’ve ever had as that of being my friend.
“Good luck,” he continued, “thank you for being the inspirational man you are, and may God bless you.”
The commissioners gathered around to formally present Blanton with a silver plaque in recognition of his service.
“To John Alvin Blanton, in grateful recognition of your service to our nation, our region, our county,” Lockamy read, “and in appreciation of your service as Sampson County commissioner, December 1996 to December 2012.”
Blanton fought back tears, as people in attendance gave him a standing ovation and sang “Happy Birthday” to the commissioner, who celebrated his birthday just a day before.
“Thank you so much,” said Blanton “I’ve been so blessed. Thank you very much.”
He let his daughter Kim Blanton speak for him, “because my dad talks a lot longer than I do,” she noted to laughs.
“‘Thank you’ is just too small a word for what’s going through my heart right now,” she said. “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. 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.”
Kim Blanton said she pondered what she could say to encompass what her father’s wishes for Sampson County would be, and she got to the Bible, the last book, the last chapter and the last verse.
“It reads ‘may the grace of Jesus Christ be with you all,’ she said. “Thank you all.”
Before being led out to continued congratulations and thanks, Blanton himself acknowledged Parker, who next month will be taking a seat only Blanton has occupied for 16 years. The two shared a handshake and hug, with an emotional Blanton sharing a few parting words for his successor.
“Let me shake your hand, Mr. Commissioner,” he said. “I know you’ll do real good.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.