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Wineka column: Hammond’s life could make you green with envy

EAST SPENCER — At 95, Robert Lee Hammond knows how to put life in perspective.
“I’m still here,” he says.
Hammond lives on Railroad Avenue, right beside the tracks, in a handsome home whose light green siding was chosen by his late wife, Grace.
The house also has a dark green metal roof and green metal chairs in the yard. Hammond, who won’t take credit for all the green, has a rocking chair on the porch and a ramp up the front steps making it easier for his walker.
As long as he doesn’t have to stand for a long time, Hammond is mobile and able to do all the important things, with day-to-day help from daughter Debra Pearson who lives with him.
“I can kind of wait on myself,” Hammond says.
He still makes his bed every morning, Debra notes.
In years past, Hammond suffered a stroke, leaving him with a leg that hurts on occasion. He deals with diabetes and some prostate issues, but he reports his doctor was pleased Tuesday morning at his latest checkup.
Hammond’s hearing is superb, and so is his affection for tobacco. He hides it well, but Hammond usually talks to visitors with a small chaw tucked back in his mouth.
About 100 people crowded inside and outside the green house Saturday to celebrate Hammond’s 95th birthday. Folks came from as far away as Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Florida. The family cooked out and had fish, chicken, potato salad, corn, baked beans and birthday cake.
“It was good,” Hammond says.
The day honored a family patriarch who basically took a fifth-grade education and figured out how to build a life for himself and his large family.
“Large” probably undersells it.
Robert and his late wife, Grace, had nine children — seven girls and two boys. Hammond says they also raised many of their 25 grandchildren and had considerable influence with 46 great-grandchildren.
“My daddy will do anything for those kids,” Pearson says.
Now there are great-great grandchildren, too, such as 20-month-old Kailyan, who looks for Robert’s approval as she trots by his seat with a wad of paper for the trash can.
“That’s my baby,” Hammond tells her.
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Men and women from another era in Salisbury might remember Hammond from his 42 years of working for the Thomas & Howard warehouse and grocery supply business between North Lee Street and the railroad tracks.
Over time, Hammond endeared himself to Charles H. Wentz and his family, which ran the supply business. Once after Wentz suffered a stroke in California and needed 24-hour supervision on his return, the family asked Hammond to help.
He stayed with Wentz 17 straight days and nights. Later, he often served as Wentz’s personal chauffeur and drove his boss all over the region.
Likewise, Wentz looked after Hammond. Wentz bought the house on Railroad Avenue in East Spencer and asked Hammond to pay $50 a month for five years before signing over the deed to him.
Hammond keeps the deed in a special place in the green house, where he has lived here 44 years.
“Of course, I had to fix it up,” he says.
In addition to raising all those children, Grace did domestic work for several families in Salisbury. She died in May 1995.
The Hammonds became devoted members of Shady Grove Baptist Church, where he mowed the grass for $25 a week and belonged to the usher board and board of trustees.
“He isn’t like today’s parents,” Barbara Hargrave says, “because he’ll take you back in, no matter what you do wrong. His door’s always open to us.”
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Hammond comes by his big family and longevity honestly. His father had 16 children — eight by a first wife and eight by a second. He lived to be 104.
Hammond’s sister in Washington, Honey Bee, will be 99 this month.
Hammond was born in Chesterfield County, S.C., and moved with his family to Gaston County around Cherryville in 1928. The kids were farmers from the beginning, and “plowing mules,” as Hammond describes it, took priority over education.
“You had to stay home, on the white man’s farm, and you did what they told you to do,” Hammond says about not going to school much. “You had to stay there and pick rocks out of the field.”
Besides, the closest school for him in those segregated days was too far away. White children rode buses. The black children did not, he said.
Hammond married Grace Feb. 8, 1941, in Gaston County, and they moved to Salisbury looking for work in 1951. Before then, Hammond said he farmed — plowing mules and raising cotton, corn, peas and tomatoes. He and a brother also owned 14 hunting dogs together for when they went after rabbits.
Hammond said he applied for a job at the Yadkin Finishing Co., but the boss told him not to report to work if it was raining.
It rained, so Hammond caught a bus from East Spencer to Salisbury and walked around town looking for work. A man named Lineberger hired him at Thomas & Howard, and Hammond started loading delivery trucks and unloading railcars.
He was pleased to earn a week’s bonus pay after a year.
“I stayed there,” Hammond says. “I made a living.”
Among other duties around the warehouse, Hammond drove a Thomas & Howard truck for 17 years, making deliveries to places such as Mooresville, Statesville, Troy, Biscoe and Southern Pines.
Sometimes Hammond walked across the tracks to work. Other times, he caught the bus or had use of Wentz’s car.
At Saturday’s birthday celebration, many five-generation pictures were taken with Hammond sitting in the middle, head of the chain. Over the years, Grace and three of their children have died, and that’s never easy to deal with.
The Thomas & Howard building came down in the spring of 1993. Robert has been retired since then.
Debra and her daughter, Raquel, say it was difficult keeping the birthday party a secret, because Hammond sensed something might be up. But it was a surprise in the end, and Hammond was overwhelmed by everybody who showed up.
They had plenty of things to talk about.
“It made me cry,” he says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com.

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