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A place in the heart

A ruined vacation doesn’t usually result in fond memories.


Like the time I spent four days in Summerton, South Carolina, with a broken car.


Summerton is the last stop off I-95 before the Lake Marion bridge. My family had come into sight of the lake when our little Corolla chose to balk at the US 15 exit ramp.


It was the early 1990s and we were headed for Daytona Beach and a week in the sun when our plans were disrupted. Fortunately, my sister Jeanne was following in her vehicle and stopped. 


I don’t remember all the details, but we located a wrecker service in Summerton.


Ginny and our girls loaded their bags into Jeanne’s car to continue to Daytona, leaving me with the tow truck driver. During the ride to Summerton, I wondered what my immediate future would look like.


We pulled into the service center, vehicles strewn about the yard awaiting repair. While the tow truck driver was unhitching my car, I went into the cluttered office where a large man with skin the color of coffee was sitting at his desk eating from a styrofoam to-go box.


“I’m Henry Lawson,” he said between bites. “What can I do for you?”


I explained that my car stopped beside the interstate and that I was pretty sure it was the transmission. Could he fix it?


“Might be a problem finding one on a Friday evening,” Henry noted. “I’ll see what I can do.”


He called around and found one they thought would work on my Corolla. I would have to wait until at least the next day before the transmission could be replaced.


I asked Henry if there was a motel nearby and he said there was one just up the hill behind his business. It was within walking distance.


I trod up the hill, crossed the large parking lot and checked in with my small bag. I was hoping for a one-nighter before continuing with my vacation.


Next morning I walked back to Lawson’s Garage to check in. Henry said the transmission had arrived and the mechanic was working to replace the broken one.


I took turns sitting in the office, walking out to the garage bay and returning to the office. Henry kept reminding me it could be a while, to just relax. 


Finally, the mechanic turned the last bolt, cranked up the car and drove it to check out his work. Henry gave me the bill and I handed him my credit card. 


He shook my hand and I drove back to I-95 toward Florida. 


I got 100 miles down the road when the Corolla again jerked to a stop at an exit ramp. I walked up the ramp to a truckstop, found a pay phone and called Henry to tell him what happened.


He sent the tow truck to, again, carry my car and me back to Lawson’s.


By the time we got there, Henry had found another transmission that he believed was right for my car. But it was in Sumter, about 30 minutes north. 


This time I rode with the driver up to Sumter, where we picked up the second replacement transmission. Unfortunately, it was after dark and the next day was Sunday.


That meant I would have to stay another two nights — at least — at the motel. Henry, showing compassion, and maybe a bit of remorse for the faulty transmission, said, “I’ll take care of your motel bill.”


On Monday, the mechanic replaced the faulty transmission and I was on my way. I said goodbye to Henry and he wished me well. This time the Corolla did its job.



Last week I did an internet search for that garage. Up popped a map of Summerton with several dots representing auto centers. Lawson’s Service Center & Garage looked promising since it had a motel behind it.


I called the number provided and Derrell Ragin answered. I told him about my problems from 30 years ago and that the owner had paid my motel bill. 


“That was my granddaddy!” Derrell exclaimed. “He died in 2014.”


Derrell had taken over Henry’s garage. “I’m a self-made businessman, just like my granddaddy.”


Later, he called me back and said his mother, Kathleen Gibson, was thrilled to know someone was asking about her father. Kathleen, Derrell said, runs a resource center in Summerton, helping those in need. That was not surprising after I learned more about Henry.


A search for “Henry Lawson” revealed that he had been a civil rights leader, community activist and member of the Summerton City Council. He was also an active participant in the lawsuit that led to Brown vs. Board of Education, which abolished segregation in public schools.


I had rubbed shoulders with a Summerton legend all those years ago.


Summerton has always held a place in my head. Now it’s in my heart as well.