Ahoskie’s people are its strength

Published 8:25 pm Saturday, March 21, 2009

As I listened to Jerry Castelloe and Dan Joyner, and as I visited with folks like Jamie Johnson and Oliver Fleming and Meryl Brown and Brownie Herbin and Keith Rawls and lots and lots of others at the Ahoskie Chamber of Commerce’s banquet Thursday night at the Ahoskie Inn, I couldn’t help but wonder if longtime residents of this area appreciate – really appreciate – how well off they are in so many, many ways.

Castelloe, of course, is the chamber’s executive director, and Joyner is its president. Jerry is responsible for the organization’s day-to-day operation and Dan is its elected head.

It is easy, I think, when you see people all the time, to begin to take them for granted.

That’s true, too, I believe, of the place you live.

I’m still the new guy. I haven’t been here quite a year yet. In that context, if you’ll let me, I’d like to try and share with you my perspective on that “familiarity factor.”

Doing what I do for a living, I’ve known and worked with more than a few chamber of commerce executives over the past 30 or 35 years. I’ve done that covering chamber board meetings and banquets and ribbon cuttings and “mixers” as a reporter or an editor. I’ve served on their boards and I’ve been the president of a chamber.

As I drove away from Thursday night’s event, I tried to think back over all those people, all those other chamber execs, I’ve known and worked with. I very consciously compared them to Jerry Castelloe, or vice versa. And they all – every one of them, even though a couple had spent their lives in chamber management – came up short.

Jerry is kind of self effacing. In his own mind, he’s still feeling his way in his current position.

But he shouldn’t be.

From my perspective, a perspective that encompasses lots of situations and lots of years, he’s doing everything right or better than right.

The Ahoskie chamber and Ahoskie the community and Hertford County are lucky he’s here and doing what he’s doing.

But then let me depart that whole train of thought and talk about something else that came to mind as a result of some of the interaction at the Ahoskie Inn Thursday night.

I found myself in a group with Jamie Johnson as the banquet was breaking up and folks were heading home. The conversation was wide ranging.

But as we talked, the customer service at Jamie’s Ace Hardware came up.

Customer service is something a lot of people talk about but at which few really excel. The folks at Jamie’s place do.

I’ve never been in that store a single time when I’ve gotten past the front counters before an employee greeted me enthusiastically and offered to help me find whatever I was looking for. (Nor, come to think of it, have any of them ever hesitated about getting me where I needed to be. They’re not only helpful, they’re knowledgeable.)

Somebody in the group Thursday night remembered that the last time she was there, it had been raining and a store employee came to the customer’s car with an umbrella and escorted her inside.

That, my friends, is customer service.

I sat, many years ago, on a hill overlooking Tucson, Ariz., and discussed customer service with Ross Roberts, then the CEO of Ford Motor Co. Our agreed upon premier example of good customer service was the Four Seasons hotel chain. If I had known Jamie Johnson then, he would have been mine.

From the podium Thursday night, Jerry Castelloe gave me a hard time because, in an earlier column, I suggested that chamber banquets are so much fun they should be quarterly instead of annual. In retrospect, there’s more to that than just the fun, though that’s certainly a factor. Perhaps a greater factor is that such events remind us how fortunate we are to be here, in this place at this time, how lucky we are to be a part of a community that includes people like those mentioned and so many, many, many more that could have been had there been space.

So, Jerry’s objections aside, the Ahoskie event this week did nothing to change my earlier opinion about making chamber banquets quarterly.

My motion stands, Jerry.

David Sullens is president of Roanoke-Chowan Publications LLC and publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index.