An anchor in the West End: Community says a long-overdue thank-you to grocer John McLaughlin
SALISBURY — On the day some three years ago when he was introduced to the Salisbury City Council as the new police chief, Jerry Stokes left that meeting and went to McLaughlin’s Grocery on Monroe Street.
Why? Because the city manager told him John “June” McLaughlin was one of the key people he needed to know in the West End.
Stokes was part of a good-size crowd showing up Thursday evening outside the grocery to offer a surprise thank you to McLaughlin for his decades of service to the West End — as a businessman and friend.
Jimmy Jenkins, president of Livingstone College, told McLaughlin that he and his store, which he handed over to nephew Harry McLaughlin Jr. last year, are woven deep into the fabric of the college and the West End.
Livingstone cheerleaders walked down from the nearby school to give McLaughlin a special routine, and the Blue Bears mascot also was seen roaming around the small parking lot.
Jenkins said McLaughlin was an anchor for the community and that icons such as McLaughlin are not born but made.
Greg Edds also used the word “anchor,” along with “gathering place” to describe McLaughlin and the grocery he operated for so long.
“I know a whole lot of stores,” said Edds, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. “I don’t know a whole lot of gathering places.”
For years, McLaughlin’s Grocery served the West End and Livingstone College students as a business they could depend on. But it also was the place they came to talk about politics, sports, religion, food and cars.
Military veterans also liked to hang out at the store with McLaughlin, who was a paratrooper with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“When June retired, I retired,” John Stout, a Marine veteran said, laughing that he was the store’s unpaid chief executive officer. “June is one of the best friends I have had.”
Dr. Bryant Norman went to Price High School with McLaughlin but entered the Navy, not the Army — something he never lets McLaughlin forget. Norman noted both men met their wives when they went to college after the service.
“We both owe any success we’ve had to our wives because they are smarter than us,” Norman said.
When Norman headed the local chapter of the NAACP, it was McLaughlin, he said, who often offered Norman directions on what the organization should be doing or wasn’t doing.
Carolyn Logan said she had to park far down the street Thursday evening and walk on terribly hurting knees — “bone-on-bone” — to make it to the thank-you.
“That tells you how much I think of June,” she said. “Everybody loves June.”
Janine Evans told McLaughlin he was always a beacon of light and hope — someone to turn to for a measure of respect.
“You’re a great friend,” Evans said, “and a wonderful inspiration to us all.”
The late Sgt. Mark Hunter of the Salisbury Police Department used to call the store his “headquarters.” The late community activist William Peoples treated the store like an office, meeting people and gauging the pulse of the West End.
James D. Scott opened the store at 1210 W. Monroe St. in 1934. Scott had one employee, Lucille Avery, when McLaughlin came to work for him at age 10. He learned a lot about the business from Avery as he delivered groceries by bicycle, stocked shelves and swept floors.
He eventually learned how to cut meat, for which McLaughlin’s Grocery still has a reputation for — ox tail, pig’s tail, cow’s feet, pork and beef ribs, whole chickens, wings, sausage and chitlins.
After John’s father died in 1951, his mother, Ovella, went to work at the store to earn extra money. She did many of the same jobs her son was doing, plus running the cash register.
Scott gradually turned over many of the daily operations at the store to Ovella McLaughlin, and her other children, Shirley and Harry, also became fixtures at the store.
Meanwhile, John graduated from J.C. Price High School in 1956 and enlisted in the Army for four years. He returned home and enrolled at Livingstone College.
As Scott’s health declined, he decided to sell his store to Ovella McLaughlin in 1958. That’s when Scott’s Grocery became McLaughlin’s Grocery. As Ovella struggled with her own health, John left Livingstone to man the store full time, working 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Saturday as his mother had in her best years.
“That was something we, as as family, really appreciated him doing,” his sister, Shirley, said Thursday. “She would really be so proud of him to know he kept the legacy going.”
The present brick-and-block store building dates back to 1960-61, when it replaced the original, which was pushed to the rear of the lot. When Ovella suffered a heart attack in 1971 and quit the grocery for good, John became the sole proprietor while his wife, Carolyn, looked after the books.
John McLaughlin manned that store like an Army post in the West End for decades to come, until 2018. Approaching his 80th birthday, McLaughlin decided to hand over the business to his nephew.
And over many of these recent years, sister Shirley has been a familiar employee in the store, too.
Deedee Wright said she and Shirley spoke often about doing something to say thank you to John McLaughlin for his decades of helping and serving the community and providing this gathering place. Finally, they set a date and told themselves to get moving, “and here we are,” Wright said.
Linda Dianne Alexander also helped with much of the planning.
To lure McLaughlin back to the store Thursday evening, wife Carolyn told him some older, out-of-town visitors had driven to Salisbury and wanted to see him at McLaughlin’s Grocery so they wouldn’t have to navigate any stairs.
McLaughlin didn’t know quite what was happening when he emerged from his car at the store.
“Are you surprised?” one woman said rushing up to greet him.
“Yeah, they got me on this,” he said.
Lots of hugs and handshakes followed before Wright started a formal program that included a city directive, read by Mayor Pro Tem David Post, proclaiming John “June” McLaughlin Day in Salisbury.
Edds appeared on behalf of the county commissioners and also gave McLaughlin one of the specially minted challenge coin from the county.
Musical tributes came from Rose Maxwell Greene and singers with Thomas Street Church of Christ.
The McLaughlins’ daughter, Lori, drove from Greensboro to attend.
“He has done so much for our family and our community,” Shirley McLaughlin said.
Carolyn McLaughlin left the crowd with these words about her husband.
“I know you know he’s a good man,” she said. “But I know I have the best man.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.
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