Paul DeMarco: The Meaning of a Life

The Op-Ed Page

AG Park 2021 7 31 Wide view

By Paul V. DeMarco
Guest Columnist

July 30 was a remarkable day for Marion County. We dedicated the Amazing Grace Park, built to honor former state senator and minister Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in 2015 in the Emmanuel Nine massacre. Although Clementa (pronounced “Clemen-tay”) was not born in Marion County, his mother was raised here and he is buried in the family plot near the eastern edge of the county.

Our local state senator, Kent Williams, is Clementa’s cousin, and it has been a labor of love for him to shepherd the park into being.

The dedication gave full voice to the multiple facets of Clementa’s life – husband, father, citizen, politician, and as he described himself, “itinerant preacher.” To accommodate all those who came to pay tribute, including Governor McMaster, it was necessarily long (over 90 minutes) and South Carolina hot – the kind of heat that soaks the knot of your necktie. I came late and missed out on a seat in the shade; it took four bottles of water to sustain me.

The best speech was by his daughter, Eliana, who will soon matriculate at Temple University. She reminded us of the meaning of legacy with a quote from the musical Hamilton – “planting seeds in a garden you will never see” – and asked that when we visit the park, we shoulder her father’s legacy and “live and love as he would.”

Eliana’s framework makes the park an extension of her father’s life. I can’t think of a better way to remember him. Few of us are immune to the effects of memorials, monuments and symbols. We feel their power, we are uplifted (or sometimes offended) by their messages. My former favorite is the Lincoln Memorial, at once awe-inspiring and intimate.

But, for me, the park will leap ahead of Lincoln because it is personal and accessible. Although I never knew Clem, as his family calls him, his park will become a new part of my identity as a Marion resident. It is a pretty mile-long walk from my home, one that I expect to travel on a regular basis.

In 1993, when my wife and I moved to Marion, the county seat of Marion County, the economic base of the region – textiles and tobacco – was unraveling. The next two decades saw much stagnation and loss: plants closed like falling dominoes, tobacco warehouses were abandoned to slowly crumble, and long-time businesses were shuttered. It’s depressing to look at photos of the Main Streets of Marion and Mullins from mid-century, when shops were bustling, and compare them to today. But over the last five years or so, powered mostly by young entrepreneurs, our Main Streets are reviving. The park, which is two blocks off Marion’s Main Street and adjacent to the Marion County Museum, will be an important step in our city’s recovery.

As important as the economic boost will be the spiritual one, which can be appreciated whether or not one claims a faith. Rev. Johnny Coe, a presiding elder in the AME denomination of which Clem was a part, reminded us of the verses in Luke describing Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. As the crowd chanted hosannas, some of the Pharisees urged Jesus to quiet them down. “’I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.’”

Rev. Coe urged all the visitors to the park to keep Clem’s memory alive, to tell his story, so that the stones and the trees that surrounded us wouldn’t have to cry out instead.

Building a park is a risk, particularly in a county like Marion, whose future is in question. Locals hope that the charm of our shops, neighborhoods and countryside, the warmth of our people, and our proximity to the beach will produce a renaissance. Online shopping and remote work make rural living easier than ever. But most of the growth in our corner of the state has been in neighboring Horry County. The pull of urban amenities and schools may overwhelm the attractions that we offer.

Having lived the first thirty of my years in bigger places (Brooklyn, Wiesbaden, Charleston, Charlottesville and Columbia) I’m an ardent believer in small-town living. My 20-minute commute into Florence is the most relaxing I’ve ever had. The cost of living, especially home prices, is low. There is no night life to speak of, but I moved here with two young children and have never missed it. It’s been a lovely place to raise them.

The most inviting aspect of the park is its openness. There are no walls, no gate. We come to the park as vulnerable as Clem did the evening he welcomed Dylan Roof into his church. We come to enjoy the light and the grass and the flowers despite the knowledge that evil exists in the world and that, if we live our lives as openly and generously as Clem did, we could share his fate.

If we walk through the park in his shoes, we recognize the long line of martyrs he has joined, and we take up the baton of creating the beloved community. The park reminds us that there is more light in the world than darkness, and that no amount of hatred or violence can overcome it.

The park gets its name from Clem’s eulogy, delivered by President Obama at Mother Emmanuel, which he closed by singing a verse of the hymn. It was fitting that the dedication was closed with a version of “Amazing Grace” and a benediction by Bishop Michael Blue, a native son and dynamic preacher. He reminded us that the name “Clementa” is derived from a Latin root meaning “merciful.” “Let us go from this place,” he declared, “A park named ‘Grace’ for a man named ‘Mercy.’”

Dr. DeMarco is a physician who lives in Marion, and a long-time reader of this blog.

AG Park 2021 7 30 Bust with Wings

3 thoughts on “Paul DeMarco: The Meaning of a Life

  1. Charles McElveen

    Thank you Dr. Demarco. Your words are enlightening, comforting and meaningful. The Emanuel event was indeed a tragedy, beyond understanding. It would be an another tragedy for this community, and beyond, to miss the message God sends through Clementa Pinckney and his following. The sacrifice of the Emanuel 9, and the responses following, should leave each of us with an indelible, humbling understanding of God’s grace. What a shame it would be for us to miss this certainty. Thank you for masterfully highlighting this message.

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  2. Ben Breazeale

    What a perfectly crafted tribute to capture the dedication day and the meaning of the park. My participation in the park project helped me to understand one of South Carolina’s greatest counties, Marion County. The park is truly a reflection of its citizens, like you, and the people that instilled values into Clemente Pinckney. These values are now carried forward with Jennifer, his daughters, and all of us who received the message that hot day. Thank you for this article.

    Reply
  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    You notice I didn’t post a comment separating Paul’s views from my own. That’s because I didn’t disagree significantly with anything he said.

    I also told him I thought it was the best piece he’s written. It must be, if a hypercritical person like me couldn’t find anything to object to.

    Beyond that, though, he reminds me of something I may have written about in the past, or meant to. It’s not a core point of his piece, but rather a sort of minor digression:

    In 1993, when my wife and I moved to Marion, the county seat of Marion County, the economic base of the region – textiles and tobacco – was unraveling. The next two decades saw much stagnation and loss: plants closed like falling dominoes, tobacco warehouses were abandoned to slowly crumble, and long-time businesses were shuttered. It’s depressing to look at photos of the Main Streets of Marion and Mullins from mid-century, when shops were bustling, and compare them to today….

    It made me think, as a native of the Pee Dee who has mostly lived elsewhere, of the sad local story I’ve seen in my lifetime.

    The economic decline of the region is a palpable and dramatic phenomenon. I don’t know whether you can ascribe it totally to the fall of textiles and tobacco or not, although those suspects are as likely as any. What I know is what a child observes. Most of the time I have spent in Bennettsville was during the ’50s and ’60s, when I was young and my maternal grandparents were still living. When I was a child, downtown was an active, prosperous place, and an easy walk from my grandparents’ house. I remember spending a lot of time in the small Belk store on Main Street, for instance. I don’t remember the store’s economic underpinnings. I remember the small, personal things that a child sees. I recall a device that I thought was really cool — it was a basket on pulleys that was used to transfer receipts and other small items back and forth between the first and second floors without the clerks having to take the stairs. I always wanted to take a ride in it when I was very small. I also remember Felix, the shoe salesman who later opened his own shoe store a couple of doors down.

    Main Street also featured the Penney’s where I got my Cub Scout uniform (I was hard to fit, needing the shortest belt they had but a grown-man-sized hat), and there they also sold the Billy the Kid jeans I wore. I recall the locally-owned Miller-Thompson Drug Store next door, where I got prescriptions, comic books and my favorite item from the soda fountain, the Cherry Smash. I remember the “dime stores” where I would save up and buy such important items as rubber suction-cupped dart guns. I remember the many downtown grocery stores — the Winn-Dixie, the Harris-Teeter, the Colonial Store.

    All gone. Various merchants and others try bravely to repurpose the store fronts — for instance, back in the ’90s local folks transformed the old movie theater (where I would see a Tarzan double-feature on Saturdays) into a civic center where I attended a community meeting at which then-Gov. David Beasley spoke — and I wish them the best, but it is obviously not the bustling commercial center that it once was. So much is gone, in some cases completely, structurally. The downtown hospital where I was born and where both of my grandparents died is as thoroughly gone as Carthage was after the Third Punic War.

    I see similar things in Marion. Not that I go there a lot. But I had a good look at Main Street a couple of years back when, inspired by my family tree research, I rode up and down trying to figure out which of those storefronts was the location of my great-grandfather’s funeral home. And I’m not enough of an economist to say with certainty how it all happened, but it’s sad to see.

    Anyway, since Paul wasn’t around (and is too young, anyway) to see those towns in the “mid-century” to which he refers, I thought I’d add my own observations, as a way of backing him up…

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