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Column: Summerlin brought out the best in others
Friday, August 17, 2012
By DEBBIE HALL -
It’s difficult to find a stopping point when the conversation turns to Benny Summerlin.
“I could fill your paper up,” Jim Adams, chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors, said Thursday when asked for reaction to Summerlin’s death on Wednesday. “Benny was a great man and a great public servant.”
A graduate of Martinsville High School, Benny, 53, said in a 1989 article that he was interested in joining a rescue squad before he was old enough to be a member. He joined when he was only 14. “After I had been there a year,” the squad found out his age, said Benny, who also worked as a deputy sheriff and investigator in the Henry County Sheriff’s Office.
He was the county’s first director of public safety — an office he started from scratch — and later, the director of operations. He was appointed deputy county administrator in 1996 and was named county administrator in 2002, the same year I began covering Henry County’s government.
It was no surprise that many of the people I called after Benny’s death expressed sentiments similar to Adams’, mainly because Benny was so many things to so many people. In many ways, he was the glue that held the community together, and that loss was apparent in the voices of many.
A genuinely good and decent man with the heart of a true public servant, Benny’s priorities were his family, his job and this community as a whole.
Out of the office, Benny devoted much of his time to attending the meetings of numerous boards. He also spent a lot of time out and about in the community. I know, because I often ran into him, his wife Robin and their dog Ammo while covering one event or another that, clearly, he did not have to attend.
It was apparent that Benny was there because he wanted to be.
And when it came to working to make someone’s life better, no task was too great or too small.
I was last diagnosed with cancer in January 2003, had surgery that February, and went through a grueling several month cycle of debilitating chemotherapy.
Though I tried to shield my daughter from the horrors of the illness, she had an uncanny way of knowing and often tried to comfort me. She stopped asking for the shoulder rides that she loved because she knew I could not lift her. The carefree laughter of childhood no longer was heard, and she became as serious as her six years would allow.
That October, Benny and Robin invited my daughter and I to their home to pick pumpkins and eat Brunswick Stew. It was a wonderful evening, filled with good company, conversation and — most of all — an opportunity to put cancer on the back burner.
Because I still tired easily, we prepared to leave well before the end of what was an annual event, when, to my surprise, my daughter asked Benny for a “shoulder ride to the car.” He was quick to oblige. She exploded with laughter. It was the first time I recalled hearing her laugh that way all year.
Through the years that Benny and I worked together (and the sometimes uncomplimentary stories), he never brought it up, aside from the subsequent annual invitations.
I’ve tried to provide a brief glimpse into Benny’s character, but he was so much more. And more often than not, he brought out the best in others.
Dale Wagoner, the county’s director of public safety, said there was a phrase he heard many times over Wednesday evening: “A lot of who I am is because of who Benny was.”
That holds true for many of us.
Rest in peace, Benny.
(Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer Debbie Hall covers Henry County government.)