Ray Felton: ‘Finest man I’ve known’

Published 11:57 am Sunday, May 31, 2009

After the ceremony recognizing Metal Tech of Murfreesboro’s having earned the North Carolina Department of Labor’s STAR award this week, lots and lots of people found Metal Tech owner and President Ray Felton to congratulate him.

That’s pretty common at such things. It’s just polite to look up whoever has just been honored and say something nice to them.

But at Metal Tech that day, there was a lot more to it than that.

And perhaps a specific example might best serve to illustrate what I’m trying to say: At the end of the ceremony, Gates County Commissioner Carlton Nickens made his way to Felton and, offering his hand, said, “You’re one of the finest men I’ve ever known.” There was a pause as the two men looked at each other, and then Nickens repeated himself, but with a difference. He said, “You’re the finest man I’ve ever known.”

I didn’t overhear that exchange. My wife did and relayed it to me. And she told me there was no way she could do justice to the reality of the moment. She said, “I was just standing there and I almost cried.”

But what Nickens put into words is an opinion shared by many, probably most, in Hertford and Gates counties.

Earlier this year, in March, I think, Felton was forced, due to the economy, to lay off about a third of his work force at Metal Tech.

He fought having to do that long and hard, but eventually there simply was no alternative.

I talked to him for a story when that happened. It was obvious that it hurt him.

He told me those employees were like members of his family, that laying them off was like doing that to members of his family.

I’ve heard people all over Murfreesboro repeat that in the months since then.

At an entirely unrelated dinner party at John’s Seafood & Steaks the night of the STAR celebration, for instance, just in the course of the conversation, someone recalled the layoffs and, of Felton, said, “That absolutely killed him. He said those people were like members of his family and he means that.”

Perhaps that was best illustrated, though, by the fact that at the celebration at Metal Tech, many of those laid off employees were in attendance and were wearing the dark green STAR shirts that were also worn by Felton himself and by current employees.

Ray Felton is known for his participation in and support of Relay for Life.

He’s a cancer survivor himself.

But he’s supportive of lots and lots of other things, too. He’s supportive in one way or another of just about everything worthy and worthwhile in our part of the world, in fact.

Physically, Ray Felton is a bear of a man, somebody you’d want on your side if things got tough.

Most of the time, he dresses to work. On the stage and at the podium Thursday, on a stage and at a podium he shared with the commissioner of the North Carolina Department of Labor, he wore one of the green Carolina STAR polo shirts, Dickies work pants, and his steel-toed, ankle high work boots.

But I’ve seen him be just as at ease in a suit and tie speaking very comfortably before a couple of hundred of the town’s elite, too.

And I know that, though I can’t imagine his ever abusing it, Ray Felton is, at all levels, one of those who, when he speaks, people listen and things happen.

And yet, without exception, he steps out of the limelight and gives the credit to others.

When Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry started to present him the STAR flag Thursday, Felton insisted that all Metal Tech employees come to the stage to accept it en masse. And as he opened the program that day, he told the 200 or so people gathered for the ceremony that all he did was “hold the steering wheel” through the STAR process, and that Metal Tech’s employees were the “engines” that made the whole process work.

Nickens was right and he said it best: Ray Felton is, in fact, one of the finest men any of us will ever know.

If you are one of those who do know him, you are privileged.

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