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Morgan: Charlie King a local treasure
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Most everybody around here knows 95-year-old Charlie King, and if you don’t know him personally, you’ve at least heard of Newton County’s amiable historian emeritus. Oh, the tales he can tell about almost anyone and everything that’s gone on in town since he was born here in 1915.

He calls himself "the biggest liar in Newton County and long-winded, too," but that’s the biggest lie he’ll ever tell. He was a Boy Scout, and scouts put a premium on truthfulness.

Charlie was interviewed by Sheryl Christian with the Newton County Historical Society in December 2009, and what you learn from that interview is that Charlie thinks Covington perhaps used to be a much more interesting place than today. Downtown boasted a bowling alley, pool parlors and a picture show where City Attorney Ed Crudup’s law office is on the east side of the Square. On the same side of the Square, the grandfather of renowned journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault ran a barbershop. Around the Square, there were a café, a fruit stand, a furniture store, a hardware store, pharmacies, a grocery store, a funeral parlor and several dry goods stores including Dietz Brothers, Cohen’s and White’s Enterprises. He watched bear wrestling where the Square Lofts stand and saw circus parades featuring lions, zebras and an old-fashioned calliope.

Boys stayed busy with camping, fishing, dove hunting, snipe hunts, long hikes and bike rides, skating rinks and football, but he was too small for basketball. Emory-at-Oxford, as it was known when Charlie attended, had a football team. Charlie remembers a 50-mile bike ride wending through the country to Madison and 14-mile hikes with the scouts. His Scoutmaster was pharmacist Guy Robinson, father of Irene Robinson Smith.

Old men played checkers in the courthouse, but younger boys would regularly gather on the Square at night for games, one of which led to a wagon being installed on the roof of a school. East of town, the young people would find a dance pavilion on the banks of the Alcovy River where they danced the Black Bottom and the Foxtrot. Down the road was Rainbow Lake, an amusement park that hosted dances, as well.

Newton County’s two biggest industries during Charlie’s youth were the textile mills and agriculture. Every family had a garden and chickens, and across the street from Charlie’s family home on Floyd Street, then dirt, that family kept a dairy barn. While the streets in town weren’t paved, the sidewalks were, because, as Charlie tells it, "the ladies wanted to keep their skirts clean."

Today if you try to ask Charlie to reflect on the wisdom he’s acquired in 95 years of living, he demurs. "I don’t consider myself wise necessarily, and I sure don’t want anybody to think I’m preaching," he said Tuesday when I took him in the rain to vote. Not as spry as he used to be, Charlie won’t fail his duty. He recalls boys and men older than he to whom he looked up, but doesn’t consider that he might have been a role model to anyone younger, even today.

In Charlie’s day, public schools emphasized memorization, and Charlie still quotes long passages from the Gettysburg Address and Shakespeare. He’s got a quick turn of the phrase for almost any subject of conversation. He deflects attention away from himself by instinct, training as a practicing attorney or by upbringing that taught one always to be discreet about one’s personal business or thoughts. Older generations seem not to have indulged in a great deal of introspection, but simply did what had to be done. Neither did they or do they feel the need to parse, dissect or declaim one’s thoughts, motives, assumptions and actions as we the chatty generation feel compelled.

If there is a philosophy to which Charlie admits, it might be the well-memorized Boy Scout rules, 12 of them like this one: "A Scout is thrifty, he works hard and saves his money so he can pay his own way, be generous to those in need and helpful to worthy objects." If one acquired wealth, it was never meant for making oneself important, he adds. "It was more important to be able to be a contributor and help those in need." Charlie remains a humble man, and "I have much to be humble about," he laughs. However, I think I catch a glimpse of pride when he speaks of his hometown, family, friends and public service including wartime duty in World War II. (His son and grandsons followed in those steps.) He calls himself humble, but we call him a treasure.


Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.