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As strong as concrete: Charles Newsome keeps building on his Hall-of-Fame life

SALISBURY — Since his retirement, Charles Newsome slowly has been moving things out of his Johnson Concrete office, but the items still left behind betray a career filled with inspiration and a life rich in experience.

On the globe near the door, you can point to about any place, and Newsome probably has been there.

He has fished in New Zealand and Alaska, taken in a lizard race in Australia, and been to Japan to buy a block machine, because he thought the technology was a bit ahead of comparable U.S. equipment.

In China in the early 1970s, he retraced the Marco Polo silk route. The Chinese art hanging on the wall brings that to mind.

He and his wife, Chris, who was born in Taiwan, enjoyed a recent cruise across the Atlantic, then made stops in Copenhagen, Israel and London, where they took in the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

The painting of a giraffe on another wall actually is by an artist in Idaho. For Newsome, it serves as a simple reminder of the 30 — yes, 30 — mission-related trips he has taken to Africa.

Many of the Presbyterian churches in Rowan County became involved with those mission trips, most of them to the Zambian village of Mwandi.

Newsome led, was involved in or inspired incredible projects that, among other things, furnished electricity to the hospital; built a new hospital, church, guest house, vocational center and orphanage; and provided sustained eye care and medical treatment.

Some of the plaques still on the wall and awards on his desk reflect how well he is known in the concrete masonry industry over a career that spanned 51 years with Johnson Concrete alone.

A 2004 plaque from the employees of Carolina Stalite and Johnson Concrete was “in appreciation for extraordinary vision and leadership.”

A gavel reflects his 1999-2000 chairmanship of the Carolinas Concrete Masonry Association.

In 2006, he received the Leadership Recognition Award from the National Concrete Masonry Association. There’s also the 2016 Thomas A. Holm Award given for “Rotary Kiln Produced Structural Lightweight Aggregate.”

As executive vice president of Johnson Concrete and general manager for Carolina Stalite, Newsome shepherded growth that saw the Stalite operation become the largest lightweight aggregate plant in the world, capable of producing a million tons a year.

“No two days were ever the same,” says office manager and longtime Newsome assistant Cheryl Williams, who has an adjoining door with his office. “He kept the variety going. We were a team for a long time.”

The two awards on his desk, which Newsome removed from their boxes just this past week, are maybe his most prestigious. The Southeast Concrete Masonry Association gave him its Lifetime Producer Member Award.

The award notes Newsome’s “dedication to excellence, determined pursuit of knowledge and pragmatic use of imaginative innovation in the continuing development, promotion and advancement of products, applications and practices for the masonry industry.”

Another strikingly sleek award represents a trip Newsome made in August to Seattle to be inducted into the National Concrete Masonry Association Hall of Fame.

“Charles is a visionary,” Starling Johnson, vice president of sales for Johnson Concrete, said when the award was presented. “When you ask him what he’s proud of, Stalite is high on his list.

“When he started, Stalite was made using sintering machines and its farthest customer was 125 miles away. Today, Stalite operates eight rotary kilns with patented technology, ships material all over the world and is the industry leader in structural lightweight aggregate.”

Newsome, now 82, served as chairman of the National Concrete Masonry Association in 2013.

“I’ve gotten to know people all over,” he says.

But now, Newsome is enjoying retirement and, of course, staying busy. He wants to write two books — one about those 30 mission trips to Africa. He thinks he also has a novel in him.

He’s recruiting a board for a new business venture, and he continues cheerleading for an industry checkoff program.

“I’m still enjoying life,” he says.

Newsome walks every day in his Forest Glen neighborhood, and he’s working with Steve Beck to build a meditation garden at Thyatira Presbyterian Church. But as for where the future leads him overall, he looks to his wife for direction.

They were married 26 years ago, and back then the Clemson-educated Chris gave up her engineering job with Falco Electric and moved to Salisbury.

“What we do, it’s going to be her turn as to where she wants to go,” Newsome says.

• • •

Charles Newsome grew up on a tobacco farm near Greenville, North Carolina. His dad died when he was less than a year old, and his mother remarried when he was 5. At 14, Newsome lost his stepfather and became the man of the house.

To make money, he drove a school bus and worked as a cook in the cafeteria.

“He learned that he could make $100 annually through the 4H program by training a cow to walk on a leash, so he started doing so every year from a young age,” says Starling Johnson, who has heard many of his stories.

Newsome decided he wanted to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because he noticed as a teenager in Greenville that UNC graduates had the nicest houses and cars.

UNC accepted him, but he found out he couldn’t enroll until he took geometry and a foreign language, subjects that hadn’t been offered at his small high school.

He took the option of going to Campbell College (University) for his freshman and sophomore years, then was allowed to transfer to UNC, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing in 1959.

He has been a devoted Tar Heels fan ever since. Newsome was accepted into law school but opted for a career in business instead. He was working as a salesman for Giant Cement when the company sent him to Salisbury to determine if Allen Johnson would be interested in selling Stalite.

Johnson wasn’t, but he turned around and offered Newsome the job of general manager of Stalite and its sister company, Tufflite, in 1968.

It proved to be a major turning point in Newsome’s career and cemented, so to speak, his love for the Johnson family.

“I’ve really been blessed,” Newsome says. “It’s an outstanding family.”

Starling Johnson never knew her grandfather, Allen, who died in 1982, a year before she was born. She says Newsome assumed sort of a patriarchal role in her family and even came to their Thanksgiving dinners.

“I was probably a teenager, or at least a tween, before I realized that Charles wasn’t family,” Starling says, “but rather the general manager and executive vice president of the companies my grandfather had started.”

In 1968, Johnson Concrete’s farthest customer was in Columbia, South Carolina. Over the next 50 years, particularly through Stalite’s lightweight aggregate production, the company transformed from a local company into an international one.

Newsome says it now supplies product to places such as Norway and Spain and recently quoted a job in Russia.

In addition, Newsome helped in the expansion of Johnson Concrete from two small gray block companies into a Southeast supplier of premium custom architectural block and other products.

Newsome led the company’s manufacturing change to a rotary kiln process for lightweight aggregate. Part of that transition involved buying a dismantled cement plant in Greencastle, Indiana.

“We bought it all,” Newsome says, recalling the 19 railcars that brought pieces of the old plant to Rowan County. The freight costs were more than what Johnson Concrete paid for the equipment.

“We brought it to Gold Hill and built it just like a race car.”

The company also developed patented processes to capture heat it was losing during the manufacturing process.

“It worked, and we patented it and we sold about a dozen of the systems — one to Alexandria, Egypt,” Newsome says.

Stalite added bag houses on the kilns to help control emissions and developed diffusers and patented those through Staclean Diffuser Co.

Over time, Newsome became a leading voice in his industry.

Beside chairing the National Concrete and Carolinas Concrete masonry associations, he headed the Expanded Clay Shale and Slate Institute. He lobbied for years to create a commodity checkoff program for concrete masonry, making numerous trips to Capitol Hill to seek congressional authorization.

Meanwhile, he challenged the people in his industry to get 100 co-sponsors in the U.S. House, then led a more grass-roots effort to get 267 co-sponsors.

“Charles told me that eight years passed between when he first met with N.C. Sen. (Richard) Burr and when our bill was finally signed,” Starling Johnson says.

Newsome went across the country campaigning for the checkoff initiative, which he says will raise $13 million to $14 million a year for research.

“That’s a milestone,” Newsome says. “I try to live in the moments, and a lot have resonated in 50 years.”

• • •

The mission trips to Africa really started with Newsome’s Sunday school class at Thyatira Presbyterian Church. The small class took on a project of reading the Bible from beginning to end.

“We decided we wanted to visit the places we had been reading about, but we didn’t have any money,” Newsome says.

So the Sunday school members took jobs at Charlotte Motor Speedway, cleaning restrooms, manning the concession stands and parking cars. They eventually raised enough money to pay for about 90 percent of their 15-person trip to Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

“That was so interesting that when we got back, we were looking for a project — and that led to Mwandi,” Newsome says.

The Sunday school class heard a talk given by the Rev. Ben Mathes of the Medical Benevolence Foundation, which was raising money for Presbyterian hospitals abroad.

On a safari trip to Africa — a college graduation present to a niece — Newsome took medical supplies to the Mwandi hospital and determined it was the most in need.

In Mwandi, Newsome met Dr. Salvador de la Torre and his wife, Irma, a nurse.

“Zambia was like stepping back in time,” he says, recalling patients who arrived at the hospital in oxen-led sleds.

Mwandi had no electricity — the closest high-power transmission lines were two miles away. A generator was able to supply only two hours of electricity a day to the poorly equipped hospital. Babies often were being delivered and patients being treated by candlelight.

“Charlie, what we need is electricity,” de la Torre told him. “… What can you do?”

The power company in Zambia was broke. Newsome returned home and talked to his Sunday school class about the need for a substation.

He recruited electrical engineer Winston Ezzell. They flew back to Mwandi and together designed a substation and determined they would need $300,000 to build it.

The Rowan County community, led by churches and a match from the foundation, raised $350,000, and overall it took three years to build and bring online.

Early on, when Newsome was in Zambia, he had attempted to negotiate with Zambia Power Co., whose board of directors essentially said, “Give us the money; we’ll do it.”

But Newsome feared that option and said it wouldn’t work. The power company’s board walked out of the meeting. It took intervention by a tribal chief, who was a member of the country’s parliament, to negotiate a deal satisfying the Newsome-led interests with those of the power company.

In 1991, Newsome accompanied a group of volunteers from 22 local churches who went to Mwandi and remodeled the hospital; the lights were on by September 1992. A  crew from Thyatira also built a guesthouse using a metal building frame donated by a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It was just the start of numerous mission trips over the years from many churches here and across the country. First Presbyterian Church built a vocational center. Dr. Ozzie Reynolds of Salisbury performed some 500 cataract operations in Zambia.

Davidson College established a summer study program in Mwandi, and an East Carolina University official annually leads a team of medical students, doctors and nurses on a three-week mission trip to Mwandi.

A group called Medical Missions grew out of the work done in connection with the hospital in Mwandi.

Newsome, who chaired the Mwandi hospital’s board of directors for 10 years, says he has started interviewing key people involved in the missions over the years in preparation for writing his book.

The working title: “The Class Said Yes.”

• • •

Newsome took his grandchildren, Moses and Willoughby, to Africa in 2018. They also were along for the recent trip to Seattle, which was extended to include a side journey to Alaska.

“Above all else, Charles is a family man,” Starling Johnson says. “Charles loves being a grandfather, so much so that I’m convinced the only reason he learned to use an iPhone is to Facetime with his grandchildren.

“Family is paramount, more important than anything else. Charles knows the names of our employees, the names of their wives, and, often, the names of their children. When I found out I was pregnant, I called my husband first and I called Charles second.”

This explains something else in the corner of Newsome’s office.

He points out the stroller Johnson keeps around for her young son.

“We’re training the next generation,” he says.

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

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