SUNBURY – They are simply ordinary people doing ordinary things for their community.
However, what is more commendable is the fact that they’ve performed those ordinary feats of community service for 80 years.
Last week, members of the Sunbury Ruritan Club were joined by national, state and regional leaders of this civic organization to pay honor to the local club’s founding fathers as well as to the continuation of that legacy today.
The Sunbury Ruritan Club was chartered on Aug. 13, 1935. It remains as North Carolina’s oldest Ruritan Chapter.
“We really didn’t put together a plan to recognize 80 years, but it eventually came to that,” said current day Sunbury Ruritan President Terry Johnson. “At the outset we had just planned to lay a wreath here at the monument (at Ruritan Mini Park, located off NC 32 north) to honor the memory of those who started this club 80 years ago. I really didn’t anticipate this event getting this big.”
Johnson was joined by National Ruritan Club President Bobby Burton of North Chesterfield, VA and Ruritan District Chaplain J.C. Harris of Pasquotank County to lay the ceremonial wreath at the base of the monument. The names on that monument include Martin Kellogg, the first president of the Sunbury Ruritans, D.E. Barnes, S.N. Blount, J.M. Byrum, M.H. Byrum, W.G. Byrum, C.F. Copeland, F.N. Cross, W.F. Cross, W.O. Crump, P.F. Edmonds, C.C. Edwards, J.E. Gregory, J.R. Hill, G.C. Hobbs, W.P. Hudgins, G.P. Kittrell, W.H. Lassiter, G.B. Morgan, J.T. Morgan, J.O. Morris, F.L. Nixon, S.E. Nixon, J.H. Parker, W.K. Parker, Dr. John A. Payne III, F.L. Pierce, F.H. Rountree, G.H. Rountree, and B.L. White.
“It’s a great honor to be here in Sunbury again; I was here for your 75th birthday and found it as a blessing that you have this beautiful park and this monument to remember those men who got it all started here 80 years ago,” said Burton.
From the park, the group moved to the Fellowship Hall of Beulah Baptist Church where a room full of Ruritan members and special guests were present to celebrate this milestone in the life of the Sunbury club. There, Danny Privott of Perquimans County – a member of the Inter-County Ruritan Club and candidate for Ruritan President-Elect in 2016 – served as Master of Ceremonies.
“It’s hard to wrap your head completely around 80 years of service and what the Sunbury Ruritan Club has meant to this community all those years,” Privott said. “And all of the other Ruritan clubs to follow in our state owe it all to the Sunbury club….they started it all for us back in 1935.”
“We’re proud of the things this club has done over the past 80 years; we take care of Sunbury and the rest of Gates County,” said Johnson. “I think the men that started this club 80 years ago would be proud of what we’re doing today.”
Chaplain Harris reminded the group that in 1935, America was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression.
“A loaf of bread back then was eight cents, if you could afford eight cents,” he said. “There were still a lot of people without jobs. If you had a job in the city, the average pay back then was $37 a week. If you had a job in Sunbury, it paid you a lot less than that, but rural folks back then knew how to survive because most could produce their own food.”
And how rural was Gates County in 1935? Harris said there were no paved roads back then and a very few automobiles. If you could afford one, a 1935 Ford cost $600. Gas to power that engine was priced at 19 cents per gallon.
Harris said seven years earlier, a new civic organization was formed just across the state line in Holland, VA.
“This new Ruritan Club concentrated their work in their rural community,” he said. “Other clubs followed in Virginia, all serving their small communities.”
Paul Edmonds, an agricultural teacher at Sunbury School, heard of the Holland Ruritans and he, along with Martin Kellogg, C.C. Edwards, and W.F. Cross attended a monthly meeting of the Holland Ruritans on July 15, 1935. One month later, the Sunbury Ruritan Club was born.
Harris added that in its first three months of existence, the Sunbury Ruritan Club sponsored a Community Agriculture Fair; contacted NC DOT to place a stop signal at the Edenton-to-Suffolk Road; purchased school books for needy children; paid one-half the cost of new shades for the school; had the school piano tuned; and later made a contribution to the school’s basketball team and sponsored a move to hire a police officer to serve the community.
“That list of accomplishments has continued as over the years this club has built a better community with neighbors helping neighbors,” Harris noted. “Ruritan became a moving force here in Sunbury and the names of the charter members are still very common in this community and in this club, and they continue to make a difference 80 years removed.”
As part of the 80-year salute, David Thompson, assigned National Director of Albemarle District Ruritan, presented Johnson with an Anniversary Certificate and a copy of the original Sunbury Ruritan Club’s Charter.
“While you are the first Ruritan Club to be chartered in the state of North Carolina, please remember that your Charter number is 15, meaning you were the 15th club nationally back in 1935; that’s a reason to celebrate as well as today there are over 1,200 Ruritan clubs across the nation,” said Thompson. “Ya’ll have done a lot of great things over the years and I encourage you to continue to do so.”
Burton, who was accompanied by his wife, Linda, said he always loves coming to Sunbury.
“You treat us like homefolks; you treat us like family,” said the National President. “Ruritan is a big family and it’s great that when Ruritan decided 80 years ago to venture outside the state of Virginia, they chose your club here in Sunbury to become the forefather of all Ruritan clubs to follow in North Carolina. That’s something to be proud of. Ya’ll supported other clubs and got them off the ground.”
Burton encouraged the Sunbury group to, “Continue to do what you do best, which is to work here in your own backyard.
“Serve your community the best way you can,” he continued. “And that includes serving the military veterans here in your area. Ruritan has always supported our veterans as well as our children, offering them scholarships to continue their education.”
He praised the Sunbury group for “staying together for 80 years, despite your ups and downs.”
“You thought out your problems and kept this club going for 80 years. And perhaps one of your best projects was the Ruritan Park and the monument there. I encourage you to continue to walk the walk for Ruritan,” Burton concluded.
Among today’s members of the Sunbury Ruritan Club is Wade Casper, a 42-year member, who remains employed at the Navy Yard in Norfolk.
“I can remember back then meeting at Damascus Church on the second Tuesday of each month; one of the women there would fix us a meal,” Casper recalled. “We haven’t changed a lot over the years; we’re still doing projects here in Sunbury and I hope it continues long after I’m gone.”
The next generation of Sunbury Ruritans will take Casper’s wish to heart.