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The pandemic has claimed around 12,000 North Carolinian lives since March 24, 2020. To honor them, we're telling eight life stories – a cross-section of our Carolina neighbors – that ended too soon due to COVID.

Small Town, Big Loss: Spindale Loses Longtime Leader James Hamilton

Illustration of James Hamilton
Natalia Polanco
For decades, James Hamilton served in a variety of roles in the small town of Spindale, including town police officer, mayor pro team and deacon of his church. He died October 14, 2020 from complications related to COVID-19.

Except for his college years, James Hamilton lived his entire life in the tiny Rutherford County town of Spindale. He couldn’t imagine making anywhere else home, said friends and family.

After decades in roles including town police officer, mayor pro-tem and deacon of his church — and unofficial roles looking out for townsfolk in as many ways as he could think of — many in town couldn’t imagine living without him, either.

Now they are, though. Hamilton, 55, died Oct. 14 from complications related to COVID-19.

Being a part of a tight-knit community had fed Hamilton’s soul. Living in place where he knew almost everyone, where he could keep an eye on how they were doing, and see what they needed. Because he built his life around helping people.

He had been raised to do for others and to be the man that he became, he was raised to be that. But he took it to another level.
Arnie Twitty

His former pastor, Arnie Twitty, said Hamilton’s parents taught him that people who live small towns have to look out for each other.

“He had been raised to do for others and to be the man that he became, he was raised to be that,” Twitty said recently. “But he took it to another level. He took it to that level of, you know, let's don't talk about it. Let's BE about it.”

Being about it meant putting his heart into what every he did, said Twitty.

“Anything that he joined, he was one hundred percent,” he said.

Hamilton was known to his friends — and he had lots of them — as “June.” Short for junior, because his father had the same name. His father was school custodian, and his mother, Bessie, worked in a textile mill in town.

The only time Hamilton lived somewhere else was when he went off to college, where he met Sophia Griffin.

“He just came up to me on campus and started talking to me, and it was just… I couldn't stand him!” she said in an interview. “He had no tact! Whatever came up came out, but he won me over. He just kept trying, kept coming back. And, yeah, then wore me down, I guess.”

Returning to Spindale After College

After they were married, they moved back to Spindale, where he become a town police officer.

Hamilton was an unusually perceptive and empathetic version of the old time beat cop said Nancy Walker, a town commissioner.

“(For several years) he was the D.A.R.E. officer at the elementary school and well, when you're elementary school, you're in contact with every child in Spindale just about, their parents,” she said. “And he was probably as well known as anybody in this town, not only from being over there, but being the officer. And he was a community officer. He got out and talked to people, he was always involved."

And he was a coach for youth football and basketball teams. Later, after he joined the UNC-Asheville campus police department, Hamilton told Walker that he loved that job, but missed helping with the kids and coaching.

His new job wasn’t in a small town. But Hamilton built a kind of community around him wherever he went, said Erik Ouin, who served with him on the campus police force.

He knew everybody from the janitor to the Chancellor when he was there. And he talked to them the same way. I mean, he just knew everybody. And he made a point to know the people on his beat.
Erik Ouin

“He knew everybody from the janitor to the Chancellor when he was there,” Ouin said. “And he talked to them the same way. I mean, he just knew everybody. And he made a point to know the people on his beat."

Hamilton volunteered to help with security for sporting events as often as possible, becoming almost a team member himself.

And he understood that policing a campus meant dealing with young people who were learning about life, sometimes by making mistakes. Ouin said that Hamilton somehow could sense when not charging someone for a minor offense could be used as a teaching moment to turn them around, without an arrest record that hurt their future.

“And they would respect that, years down the road," he said. "We were sitting at breakfast one morning, and...he had dealt with this kid about four or five years ago, and the kid came up and paid for his breakfast and said, ‘You don't know who I am do you?'"

“And he said, no, I’m sorry, I don’t,” Ouin said. “And he said, ‘Well, you dealt with me, you know, on a call one night, and you really changed my life.”

Then the young man bought the police officer breakfast.

In 2015, several people in Spindale asked if Hamilton would considered serving on the town board.

Twitty said that was partly because members of the black community wanted to make sure they had representation on the board.

Hamilton was reluctant. It just wasn’t in him to want recognition.

“James didn’t want a title,” Twitty said. “He would often say, ‘I just want to serve. I’d rather cut the grass, I'd rather help clean up. I’d rather drive the bus, do anything that you need me to do... I'll still be the same man if I didn't have the title. I just want to be where I can help wherever I can.’”

Hamilton agreed to serve if somehow he won a write-in contest. He may have been banking on the fact that rarely happens in politics.

But he did win.

Serving The Town In Official And Unofficial Ways

Walker, the town commissioner, said that as a board member, Hamilton championed causes like a youth center, tennis courts and ball fields. And he came to enjoy the job when he realized what he could do with it.

“He loved helping,” she said. “He felt like when people come to him and he got …even if it was to clean out a ditch in front of their house. He, you know, he felt like he, he was helping.”

Among his many official and unofficial roles, Hamilton was known around town for his love of one particular chore that many people detest.

“He loved cutting grass,” said Sophia Hamilton. “That was his release. He told me that was his release."

Twitty, his former pastor, said the churchyard was a favorite target for that release.

“He would go there sometimes twice a week to make sure that the grass at the church was beautiful,” Twitty said. “It made him feel good for someone to say the grass look good. Because whenever people entered the grounds, the first impression — he would always say— the first impression speaks volumes."

He cut grass for friends, for elderly people who couldn’t do it. All over town, and sometimes a town or two away.

Mowing was just one thing of many, said Twitty.

“Anyone who needed his assistance, it could be someone on side the road that needed a jump (start), or needed to change a tire… He had tools, if you need to borrow his tools, he wanted you to take care of them,” Twitty said. “But he was a lender. He was a lender."

Retirement Plans Cut Short

Hamilton was planning to retire early, this February. He told people he was looking forward to having time to get back to coaching kids.

But despite being careful, and trying to stay masked as much as possible, he contracted COVID-19.

With him, something almost beyond definition died, too.

“In a little town like this, to lose someone like James, suddenly, every heart stops,” Twitty said “It’s like, it shut the town down.”

Hamilton’s family believes he caught COVID-19 one of two ways.

One possibility was when one day on campus he was called to help a student who was gravely ill.

“And he took her to the emergency room and in the squad car, and come to find out she did have the corona,” said Sophia Hamilton.

Around the same time, he went to visit a neighbor who was terminally ill and had only a couple of weeks to live. The man’s son, who had been in the room during the visit, tested positive right after that.

Whichever incident cost him his life — and cost the university and his small hometown one of their linchpins — it was characteristic: James Hamilton was trying to help someone else.

Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.
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