Mornings aren’t really for me. I struggle to get up unless I absolutely have to. So when I was assigned to a team for men’s breakfast at my church, I found it necessary to drag myself out of bed at an unbelievably early hour to get to church in order to help cook breakfast and have it on the table at 7 a.m.
I generally walked in the kitchen with one eye closed, but then I saw this man sitting on a stool in the middle of the kitchen, holding court with the rest of the crowd. He was telling stories and making jokes and he generally kept everyone in the group in a happy mood.
Clayton Whitley recognized a good story and he had that uncommon gift for telling them, too. And he had lived long enough to have plenty of them to tell. He died July 23 at the age of 88. I’m not sure, honestly, if Clayton was assigned to our breakfast team or if he just liked being in the company of other folks. My team only had to cook breakfast twice a year. Somehow, though, I suspect Clayton was there every month on the morning of men’s breakfast, telling stories, doing little odd jobs here and there and just soaking up the atmosphere. He lived a full life and he never wanted to let an opportunity go by to experience another adventure.
At Clayton’s funeral – everybody at church called him Mr. Clayton – he was eulogized as a big N.C. State fan, a war veteran and a loving family man. He was all those things to be sure.
But he was so much more than that.
He took our family – especially me – under his wing when we were new in town and still meeting new people. His personality was so magnetic that I found myself just wanting to be in his company and looking forward to another story. When we went to Mudcats games at Five County Stadium, we saw him in one of those familiar red shirts worn by the ushers. I remember thinking “I know him.” Although I never felt uncomfortable at the stadium, it seemed somehow comforting to know that he was close by.
Mr. Clayton was an usher from the time the stadium opened until last year. For decades, he also served as an usher at N.C. State ball games. He told me a great many stories about his experiences in both those jobs. Neither of them probably paid him very much money, but they made Mr. Clayton rich because he got to be around people and his job as an usher was to help people.
I visited him at his home a couple times over the past several years and he was never shy about sharing his advice. Like me, he was the father of two daughters. So I listened.
There was an overflow crowd at Mr. Clayton’s funeral on Saturday – literally. I heard the funeral home folks direct some of the late arrivals to the fellowship hall. That, in and of itself, is a testament to the lives he touched in 88 years.