Celebrating his 50th year in Scotland County, resident Thomas Sunderland tends to find himself always standing out from the pack. His apartment is the easiest the spot in the neighborhood, as it is lined with more than 400 different types of flowers and crops. And on most days, Sunderland can also be found out by the old Millhouse on X Way Road cleaning up trash, something he’s done for nearly four years.
But on football Friday nights, there is only place to find the 76 year-old: at the 50-yard line of Pate Stadium, row AA, in the same seats he has filled for over 30 years.
“You’ll have no trouble spotting me there, I’m just below the press box,” Sunderland said. “I’m not from Scotland County originally, but Scotland High School sports have meant a great deal to me over the years, and as the sports programs have grown I have right alongside them as well.”
A Pennsylvania native, Sunderland joined the Army and relocated to Fort Bragg after graduating high school, often finding himself in Laurinburg on leave. In 1959, Sunderland met his former wife and Laurinburg native Betty, marrying her on December 26th 1960 which happened to be a day after Betty’s Christmas birthday. After living in New York for two years, the Sunderlands would move down to Laurinburg for good in 1962.
After working at a Bennettsville, SC Chevrolet dealership for future automotive mogul Rick Hendrick, Sunderland ran a car wash business with Nic’s Pic Kwik founder Charlie Nichols before starting his own business in the early 80’s. That business was Scotland Security, and as the owner and operator, Sunderland installed burglary systems in every Scotland County school.
Sunderland would sell his business and retire in the late 90’s, but not before his experience in the school district sparked a lifelong passion for Scotland sports.
“I had always listened to Scotland sports on the radio, but there was something about being around all of the schools and hearing people talk that compelled me to want to go to all of the games,” Sunderland said. “So then I started attending every sport I possibly could and at every school I possibly could, from Scotland High School to Carver Middle School.”
And as his roots to the surrounding area dug deeper, so did Sunderland’s lineage. Sunderland and wife Betty have four children, all of whom attended Scotland County schools, as did most of their eight grandchildren, including former Fighting Scots catcher William Sunderland who graduated in 2005. As a senior, Sunderland won the 4-A SEC Conference MVP award, and in his final season at Scotland batted .460 with 5 home runs and 24 RBIs before attending North Carolina A&T on a full baseball scholarship. Now 25 years old, William Sunderland is a member of the United States Coast Guard and a member of the Honor Guard in Washington, D.C.
Sunderland’s daughter in-law Renee (married to Sunderland’s son Russell) even runs the ticket booths for all the SHS home sporting events. But Sunderland isn’t holding his breath for a family discount or free pass.
“When the Fighting Scots played Southview in the first round of the 2012 4-A state baseball playoffs, she wouldn’t even let me in for free,” Sunderland said with a laugh. “She doesn’t mess around when it comes to admitting people, I can tell you that much.”
His love for Scotland sports notwithstanding, Sunderland prides himself even more on keeping the town that has treated his family so well over the years clean. When he was hired to sell fishing permits at a 36-acre pond near the old Mill house (formerly called the X Way Milling Company, which closed its doors 20 years ago) off of X Way road, all of the surrounding area was used as a garbage dump.
Volunteering his time for free, Sunderland fills two-to-three 55-pound garbage bags on a daily basis in an effort to maintain the land where he himself fishes.
“I don’t make any money doing what I do, and I end up giving away more fishing permits then I sell,” Sunderland said. “I just try to help in any way possible, because I just don’t understand why people feel the need to litter. If you live somewhere, why would you want to dirty it up?”
Sunderland has seen many of Scotland sports’ greatest triumphs, including most recently the football Fighting Scots’ state championship victory. But he also has fond memories of attending the 2006 4-A State Championship baseball best-of-three series between the Fighting Scots and South Caldwell. In a series that Sunderland said he “laughed, cried and did everything you can think of,” the Fighting Scots defeated the Spartans to win the state title.
But now as Scotland sports continue to grow stronger, Sunderland is most looking forward to the future.
“The sports here are leaps and bounds above what they were in 1981,” Sunderland said. “We had good teams in the past, but these past six years have been truly great. It means a good deal to this county in general, not just me.”