Before the U.S. Army drafted him, Waddell Horton worked his family’s land in Wake County. He loved farming and planned to take it up again after his return from Korea.
But two years later, 18 months of which he spent sleeping in a tent, Horton’s feet were permanently injured from frostbite, his wife said. He could no longer work a job as physically demanding as raising tobacco.
Horton was able to make peace with this loss, and soon took over Stallings Store for his father-in-law, who had founded it in 1922. Located at a crossroads on Highway 64, it was the sort of country general store where people gathered, catching up on the day’s events while picking up feed, fertilizer, milk and eggs.
“He accepted the world as it was, and he never complained,” said Evelyne Horton, his wife of 61 years.
From that crossroads, Horton would play a pivotal role in Pilot, a rural community located outside Zebulon in Franklin County. In addition to stocking that little country store with items folks really needed, he would help establish both the Pilot Lions Club as well as the Pilot Volunteer Fire Department.
Horton died last month at the age of 84 from complications from a stroke in December, his family said. He was at home in Pilot, exactly where he wanted to be.
Inspired by a friend who was already a member of the Lions Club, Horton founded a Pilot chapter of the community service organization in 1973. As the club’s first president, one of the first projects Horton took on was establishing a fire department. “There had been a few structure fires in our area, and we had to wait for Zebulon or Bunn to come,” said Lynn Lewis, a Pilot resident, Lions Club member and volunteer fireman. “The men of that day felt that we needed a volunteer fire department to serve our area.”
The fire department had to have a fire truck, and the Lions Club managed to raise the $3,000 needed to purchase one from the Wendell Fire Department. “It was a lot of money,” Evelyne Horton said. “I don’t know how they raised that money. But it had always been a community that pulled together.”
It would be another decade before that truck had its own garage; Horton sold the department the land for it. He sold the plot for the same price he had paid for it a few years earlier, his family said. The building was erected at the same crossroads as Stallings Store, and Lions Club meetings took place there as well.
“The church, Lions Club and the fire department [are] the backbone of our community,” said Jerry Carlyle, a Pilot resident who started working at Stallings Store in high school before joining both the Lions Club and the fire department. “Back then the country store was like the courthouse.”
Though his foot injury prevented him from putting out fires, Horton served as the department’s treasurer for 20 years. He often played a part in larger fires, showing up with water and supplies for the firemen.
Horton tapped Carlyle to be his successor as treasurer, and when the department needed to upgrade the fire truck, many thought it would be impossible for their small operation to finance the $185,000 investment. But Horton had confidence, Carlyle said, and the department paid off the 20-year loan in half the time.
The Pilot volunteer fire department would become one of the first in the area to start first-responder training, Lynn Lewis said. These days the department responds to more than 20 calls a month, and more than half involve emergency medical care.
Horton was known for his dry sense of humor. His daughter, Charlene Horton, remembers him as someone who showed his love in a quiet but intense way.
“I don’t think many people really knew him like I would have liked,” Charlene Horton said. “He was a man of few words. When he did speak it was sincere.”
He was the kind of father who only said things once, and he kept his feelings to himself – even at the loss of his son, Herby Horton, who died from complications of diabetes in 2008. “Waddell had a big bark,” Carlyle said. “But he was really a good person.”
When Carlyle was a teenager working at Stallings Store, he saw Horton do small favors for those in the community, whether it was providing credit to farmers or helping folks fill up their tanks after hours during the 1970s fuel crisis.
And he loved to fish. “He’d never say, ‘We’ll go fishing today.’ He’d say, ‘Get in the truck!’ ” Carlyle remembered with a chuckle.
Though he could be gruff, Horton loved being around people. After he retired from Stallings Store because of health problems, he worked part-time for a number of years at the Franklin County Sanitation Department – just to stay social, his family said.
“Dad received his 40-year pin as a Lions Club member just a few weeks before he passed. He was so proud of it,” Charlene Horton said “He put it in his wallet to carry with him. He was put to rest wearing it.
“It is ironic – the Lions Club was chartered on March 26, 1973, and my dad passed March 26, 2013.”