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Bench dedicated to ‘Daddy Mac’ McLester

‘Beloved teacher, coach, mentor, leader’

Posted: January 25, 2018 4:13 p.m.
Updated: January 26, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Martin L. Cahn/C-I

C-I WEB EXTRA: Jackson High School Class of 1967 representative Ransom Smith (right) reads from some notes after presenting a check for $300 to (from left) Thomas Edgar McLester Jr. and the Rev. Larry McCutcheon toward the Thomas E. and Amy J. McLester Scholarship sponsored by Camden First United Methodist Church where McCutcheon is pastor.

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It wasn’t a Sunday, but the pews were filled at Camden First United Methodist Church on Camden’s DeKalb Street. Not knowing what the weather would be like, Camden First’s pastor, the Rev. Larry McCutcheon, had agreed to hold a special Leaders Legacy Bench dedication inside the sanctuary Tuesday in honor of one the church’s longest-serving members, Thomas E. “Daddy Mac” McLester.

McLester was 100 years old when he died on May 1, 2012. He was a well-loved, longtime educator and basketball coach at Jackson and Camden high schools who left behind a legacy of service to young people and devotion to his church and community.

McLester’s bench can be found up the block at the corner of DeKalb and Campbell streets in front of what is now the combined Kershaw County Head Start and Continuous Learning Center building where Jackson High School (JHS) once stood. The JHS Class of 1967 sponsored the bench, an idea class representative Dr. Ransom Smith said was suggested by Camden Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford. Drakeford acknowledged that during her moment at the podium during Tuesday’s program.

“I told them about this program and asked if they would sponsor a bench for Daddy Mac and, because of that ask, we are here today to dedicate the bench to a very, very special person,” Drakeford said. “In high school, he was my 11th and 12th Grade English teacher and he didn’t let me get away with anything. I can remember clearly during exam times, we had to take an oath that we would not give information or receive information. And you know what? He did that, he left the room and you didn’t hear a sound. Everyone understood what he said. You might’ve wanted to look, but you didn’t.”

Drakeford said that after graduation, McLester never failed to tell her how proud he was of her. She also became friends with McLester’s late wife, Amy, through their sorority. They would travel together, she said, and McLester always had a parting word for them:

“Drive safely, look out for each other and don’t forget to leave something for the housekeepers each day because that person might not be there the next day and you want to make sure that you let them know you appreciate what they’re doing for you,” Drakeford said.

She ended her part of the program by reading “Measure of a Man,” by Traquita Thomas.

Later in the program, Smith thanked Mayor Drakeford and noted that the plaque on McLester’s bench reads “Beloved teacher, coach, mentor, leader.” Smith also said he was fortunate to be among the young men McLester would take to Ocean House in Watch Hill, R.I., during several summers.

“It was not only a way to earn college money, but … he never stopped teaching, mentoring and instructing us in the ways of life and give us the information that would help us deal with those things we were sure to encounter in the future,” Smith said.

He said he was also fortunate to assume McLester’s teaching duties for a few years after his mentor retired. Smith, in turn, encouraged those gathered, especially his fellow Class of ’67 graduates, to use Tuesday’s program to cultivate their own personal legacy.

“The bench is for Daddy Mac, but we have work to do and we should look for opportunities to support scholarships, mentoring programs and other means of possible encouragement for the youth of our community. The greatest tribute we can pay to Daddy Mac as we honor him is to continue to do the kind of work he did in the community,” he said.

With that, Smith presented a $300 check from the 1967 class to Rev. McCutcheon and McLester’s son, Thomas “Tommy” E. McLester Jr., toward a scholarship named after McLester and his late wife, Amy, who died in November.

Camden First congregant Nathaniel Edwards spoke at length, counting off things people may -- and may not -- have known about “my friend, my buddy, my brother.”

First and second, he told the audience that Daddy Mac loved God and the church they were sitting in, back to when it was still known as Trinity United Methodist Church.

“Daddy Mac taught adult Sunday school in this church; he taught me for over 50 years. That’s a long time to get prepared for Sunday school every Sunday. So, I used to talk a little bit in his class -- well, maybe more than a little bit,” Edwards said.

A number of years ago, McLester admitted to Edwards he was getting tired and asked if Edwards would take over the Sunday school class. Even after that, however, McLester served on many church committees.

Edwards said McLester also loved his family.

“That’s all he wanted to talk about, his family,” Edwards said.

And he explained from where McLester’s love of good clothing came.

“He came from real humble beginnings and he went through some tough times,” Edwards said. “He told me about the time he went to New York. He had to experience the cold weather in New York. He didn’t hardly have any money and very little clothing. He said it was brutal. And he said, ‘Nat, I didn’t have enough clothing and I only had one pair of shoes. And that pair of shoes had holes in the toes.’ And he said, ‘I had to put cardboard in the holes of the shoes so I couldn’t get frostbitten.’ And he said that was an experience he would never forget.”

So much so, Edwards said, that McLester promised himself that if he got out of that situation, he would do better with his clothing. Once he began making money, Daddy Mac began buying clothes, especially nice shoes, Edwards said. From then on -- “his words,” Edwards said -- everything he bought had to be “top shelf” and always wore slacks, a jacket and a hat.

Next, Edwards said that McLester was a baseball player for Claflin University and then South Carolina State University.

“He went over there and played baseball as a catcher. Loved it. We were at his house one time and he said, ‘Nat, my knees are hurtin’ a little bit.’ And I said, ‘Well, Daddy Mac, you’re kinda old.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but I think some of that came from me squattin’ down and catchin’ that ball, you know.’ And I said, ‘Well, probably true,’” Edwards said.

But, he said, McLester told him he wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.

Next on Edwards’ list was McLester’s work as a teacher. He said McLester once told him he knew some students saw him as “mean old fella.”

“But he said, ‘I supported them, I encouraged them, but I demanded that they work up to their abilities … I didn’t want them half-stepping. I wanted them to do the best that they could,” Edwards said.

McLester was also a Mason and a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity and loved them, as well.

Also, McLester was always eager to learn just as much as he loved teaching, even if what he was learning was how younger people spoke. Edwards said McLester came up to him one day at church with a grin on his face and said, “Nat, everything is off the hook.” What he meant, Edwards said, was “off the chain.” But instead of correcting his longtime friend and mentor, he just said, “Daddy Mac, you’re the man.”

“He was having fun…. I couldn’t burst his bubble,” he said.

The next item appeared to be the hardest for Edwards to talk about: that McLester’s one major regret was that he couldn’t save his brother.

“He had a younger brother that he couldn’t save. He said, ‘I did all I could for him,’ but his younger brother was one of these fellas who liked to have a good time -- he partied a lot -- and he wouldn’t save his money and wouldn’t take care of himself,” Edwards explained. “He said, ‘I tried all that I could to save him, but I couldn’t.’ His younger brother died when he was in his 30s.”

Finally, Edwards decided to tell a story that played up to a combination of McLester’s advanced age, a little stubbornness and his unique sense of humor.

Amy McLester had gone to Columbia on business one day, leaving 99-year-old Daddy Mac at home alone with assurances to her that he would call Edwards if he needed anything.

“So, Daddy Mac called and I knew there was some urgency in his voice,” Edwards said. “‘Come on, come on here, I need your help, I need to go to the emergency room.’ I said, ‘Daddy Mac, what in the world’s going on.’ ‘I fell in the bathroom. I’m hurt.’”

Edwards said he had no idea what to expect when he arrived at McLester’s house. But, he said, Daddy Mac was a “tough old fella” and by the time he got to the house…

“Daddy Mac was all bloody around the waist and around the legs and all that, and had all the bruising on him, but Daddy Mac was dressed, had his jacket on … and he was ready to go to the hospital,” Edwards said.

After they arrived, there was a long wait, with Edwards repeatedly having to explain the need for urgency considering McLester’s age and the injuries he suffered.

“The next thing I knew, Daddy Mac was slumped over in his wheelchair. So I walked up to him and checking Daddy Mac to see if (he) was still breathing,” he said. “His breathing was very shallow, so I went back to the nurse and said, ‘You’ve got a man in a wheelchair out there and I’m not sure he’s breathing.’ And there was panic.”

At that point, the staff quickly took McLester back to begin treating him. Afterward, when only he and Edwards were in a room by themselves, McLester woke up and said, “Man, we sure got their attention, didn’t we?” to which -- with the audience laughing loudly -- Edwards said he responded, “We sure did!”

“Thank you for honoring him,” Edwards told those present. “He was a good man, and I miss him.”

Former Camden First pastor, the Rev. Ellis White, spoke briefly, calling McLester a “giant of a man” and talked about McLester successfully living a purposeful life.

The last to speak was Tommy McLester.

“As his son, I know Daddy Mac would be very proud this day. Whether it was through his 36-year tenure as a teacher at Camden and Jackson schools, or his service as a high school basketball coach, my dad was always sure that encouraging the success of Kershaw County’s youth remained one of his highest priorities,” McLester Jr. said. “He was the same in all parts of his life, whether at home, at school, at church or out in the community. He always expected your best.”

McLester Jr. said his father’s purpose was to help his fellow man and educate the youth of the community.

“It was to use all his gifts, talents, opportunities, energy, relationships and resources God gave him to make this world a better place. He did that all the days of his life,” he said.

And, he added, he is grateful Daddy Mac was his father.

“Before I was born, I know my dad fondly ‘adopted’ many of his students as his sons and daughters and granddaughters,” McLester Jr. said. “So, let me say, I’m proud -- very proud -- to be your little brother.”

He then urged everyone to continue giving back to the community by donating to his parents’ scholarship program. McLester Jr. ended his talk with one of Daddy Mac’s favorite poems, “Things Worthwhile.”

After the program, those in attendance retired to the church’s fellowship hall for light refreshments and then many walked or drove down to the corner where Jackson High once stood to see, sit on and have their pictures taken at the bench dedicated to their teacher and mentor -- and in one man’s instance, his father: “Daddy Mac.”


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