No one would have thought less of John Middleswarth had he shown up for the Zebulon Chamber of Commerce awards banquet wearing blue jean bib overalls and his straw hat.
Such attire, and a town-issued safety vest, are how many people know Middleswarth, even if not personally. It’s what he wears daily as he combs miles of Zebulon’s streets picking up trash to, as he puts it, earn the disability benefits he has received since health issues ended his career several years ago.
Mayor Bob Matheny praised Middleswarth for that outlook and for his history of working to make Zebulon a better place as he named him Citizen of the Year at Thursday’s event.
“He believes he should contribute in an effort to earn his disability benefits,” Matheny said. “What a great way to think.”
Middleswarth told the crowd this year would have been his 40th as a truck driver if not for heart trouble.
“To draw a disability check, I just couldn’t stand it,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to do something for this town and for my neighbors and my friends, and a lot of people I don’t even know. But they’ve seen me.”
Middleswarth took it upon himself in 1985 to improve and maintain what is now Little River Park, until it became part of Zebulon’s park system about five years later. He has also been active in Litter Sweep campaigns over the decades he has lived in the town.
Nowadays, Middleswarth carries pickers and two buckets, to separate trash and recycling. He even culls recyclables from local gas station trash cans.
Middleswarth estimates he takes twenty 33-gallon trash bags to the Wake County convenience center between Wendell and Zebulon each week.
Matheny quoted Commissioner Curtis Strickland, Middleswarth’s neighbor, saying: “It’s just amazing. You don’t see people do something like that. It is great for people to see someone like that doing something great for the community.”
The town’s top award took on a new name this year, in memory local real estate fixture William Parrish, who died in 2015 at age 82.
Four Oaks Bank won large business of the year and Victory Lane Quick Oil Change took home the small-business honors.
The Zebulon Rotary Club then presented longtime educator and Zebulon Boys & Girls Club advocate Carol Weeks with its Service Above Self Award and recognized her as a Paul Harris Fellow, making a donation in her name.
The keynote speech came from retired U.S. Navy Capt. Carlton Puryear, who gave the businesspeople clear instructions on how they can be better leaders.
The only constant in life is change, Puryear said, so learning to adapt is critical.
“Don’t bring me problems,” he said. “I don’t want to hear problems. Bring me solutions. No emotion, just the facts. Keep the main thing the main thing, and don’t shoot the messenger or the messenger will quit coming. You who see the change coming and adapt to it will be the winners of tomorrow.”