LAURINBURG — Aside from being the deciding day of this year’s primary elections, today may pass unnoticed for those unaware of the special designation given to May 6, 2014 by the mayor of Laurinburg.
Tommy Parker, in a proclamation read during a 100th birthday celebration on Sunday for the man unofficially known as the “mayor of McGirts Bridge Road,” declared today as “Luke Harrington Sr. Day.”
“On most days he can be found sitting in his yard keeping a watchful eye on people and activities along McGirts Bridge Road and sending a warm greeting to those who pass by … he is known in the community for his strong family and community commitment and his honest and ethical manner,” the proclamation reads.
Harrington, the second of 10 children born to Willie and Flossie Harrington of Rockingham, lives in the same home in the Lincoln Heights community that was built for him several decades ago. He prides himself on the fact that after all these years, when it rains, no “pings” can be heard hitting the floor.
On a sunny afternoon the week prior to his birthday the man who long ago picked up the nickname “Cool Hand Luke,” a la the 1967 Paul Newman flick of the same name, could be found dressed as always in layers, shining his shoes in his living room. He was surprised, but not exactly impressed, to learn that the following Tuesday would mark his centennial.
“I don’t keep up with all those years,” he said with a wave of his hand.
Though he may not keep tabs on how long he’s been on this Earth, he can most likely tell you the goings-on of his neighborhood. And if you stop to chat, you might want to pull up a chair.
“I’ll say that I’ve known him most of my life, not his,” said Robert Malloy, the city’s former police chief, with a chuckle. “He’s a super guy, great deal of wisdom. He loves to talk and most of the time when he’s talking, if you listen well, you’ll learn something.”
As for the movie-title nickname?
“I never asked,” Malloy said. “I always called him ‘Mr. Luke’ or ‘Mr. Harrington.’ I’ve never called him ‘Cool Hand Luke.’ I’d probably, in my younger days, get knocked in my head if I called him that.”
“That name fits him, he’s a laid-back individual, laid-back, cool guy,” said Police Chief Darwin Williams, who has known Harrington his entire life. “He took life very easy.”
Regardless of the nickname’s source, it’s one Harrington embraces and uses to refer to himself; and is a clue to a no-nonsense attitude that could be interpreted as a little rough around the edges. A tough man and staunch defender of those he loved, he will tell of the time he used the threat of brass knuckles to defend a friend’s son who was being threatened. As he says, “he don’t take no fuss off of people.”
“Cool Hand’s a man’s man, you know,” Williams said. “Which is rare these days. He is loyal to those he loved and cared for. In this day in time, if you’ve got one friend like Luke you’re doing something good.”
Even well into his 70s, Harrington could be found helping Rembert DeBerry, son of Sylvester DeBerry, longtime friend and founder of Deberry’s Upholstery, move furniture — but he knew his limits.
“He would only go so far down, saying ‘I’m not bending my back,’” Rembert said. “He was a strong man and I’d always pick at him how strong he was. … I’m going to tell you something. Tommy Parker is the mayor of Laurinburg, but this is Lincoln Heights community, and this is the mayor of Lincoln Heights. Everybody know him, he been in the community a long time, one of the oldest members of the community. Everyone always asks me, when they see me somewhere, how’s Mr. Luke Harrington doing?”
Before enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942, Harrington, who worked at a Coca-Cola Bottling Plant in Richmond County, was a feared pitcher for The Rockingham Sluggers. Known as a longtime fan of a capella groups, especially The Dixie Hummingbirds, Harrington himself was a member of The Singing Stars.
After being honorably discharged in 1945, he married Elizabeth Ingram and had one child, Margaret. Years after her death, he married Rachel Pearl Pemberton, and the couple had four children, Johnny, Luke Jr., Willie Frances and Joyce.
“I always knew daddy to mean what he said. When he said do something, he wasn’t playing,” says Joyce Harrington Pressley, who visited from Gastonia for her dad’s birthday. “I never knew him to be a hard father, but he was a stern father.”
That fact didn’t deter Pressley from being utterly devoted to her father, from sitting on the front porch and waiting for him to come home to hiding in the backseat of the family car and popping up unexpectedly once Harrington was near his destination.
Harrington enjoyed the attention, as he now enjoys his 11 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and numerous nieces and nephews.
“If I had something to do, he’d always tell me to leave the children,” said Rachel, 86, who celebrated 59 years of marriage with Luke earlier this year. “He never liked leaving them with anyone.”
Harrington retired from J.P. Stevens, in Wagram, in 1979. The oldest male member of Galilee United Methodist Church, Harrington sang bass in the choir and was known to lead “I’m Gonna Hide Behind the Mountain” and “I shall not be moved.”
At home, he sings a different tune, part of a story he loves to tell of how he first took note of Rachel as she sang while she swept the porch of her nearby home. That song, “I’ll be true to you,” Rachel now hears every day.
“Oh, you go on now,” she says playfully as Harrington teases her about one of their first meetings by singing the first few bars in his low voice. Although she’s heard it hundreds of times, she doesn’t seem too bothered.
“I know that single-parent homes can produce wonderful children, but me having grown up with both parents was wonderful because that was the example I saw,” Pressley said. “Now when I’m going through something hard, or what I perceive as being hard, I think about how my parents have been together for 59 years and I know that I can endure.
“What I love most about my parents is that they do everything together,” wrote Pressley in a biography she penned on her father’s 90th birthday, words on Monday she said still ring true. “Often I’m asked who my idols are. Well, my parents, of course, because of what I saw in our home.”
“You know, everybody has their ups and downs, but I think he’s had more ups than downs,” Williams said. “That’s obvious in the fact he’s turning 100. We all love him, you know? We all love him.”
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco.