Staff Photo: Sue An Kuhn-Smith Charles Wilborn has been sewing for more than 60 years. Here, he sits at the antique Singer sewing machine he purchased from Cohens Mens Shop after the store closed. "I needed it to sew heavy duty material, jeans and stuff like that."
Editor's Note: This story is part of an occasional series called Getting to Know You that will profile some of Newton County's most extraordinary citizens.
COVINGTON -- Charles Wilborn may well be the busiest man in Newton County. Most everyone knows "Mr. Charles," for he wears many, many hats and he seems to be everywhere: Standing before a classroom of students, welcoming patrons of a downtown restaurant with a friendly smile, reading a Dr. Seuss book to youngsters in full Cat in the Hat costume, picking up a pile of clothes to alter at Covington Flower Shop, attending civic functions.
He's always got a hardy handshake and "How you doing?" for those he encounters, and if they're not smiling when they see him, they are by the time they leave him.
"I love to talk. I love people," he says, sitting on a sofa at Covington Flower Shop downtown. He proves it when a patron walks in, immediately jumping up and yelling, "Hey, how you doing?" with a smile that proves contagious to the man he's greeting.
The flower shop is where Wilborn picks up clothes that folks drop off for his expert alteration these days.
He's known for this skill, having worked at men's shops downtown for more than 40 years, first at J.C. Poole, a mens and ladies wear store, and then at Cohen's Men's Shop.
Wilborn learned to sew at age 9 from his seamstress mother, Orlena "Zell" Wilborn, who made the clothes for her six children. As an adult, Wilborn made his own suits and clothes for his two children.
Wilborn developed a do-it-yourself attitude based on the teachings of his parents and out of necessity, growing up on a farm where he was responsible for milking the cows and helping cook breakfast before school. He would make the biscuits and his sister would fry up the bacon.
Wilborn's mother provided his cooking education too, eventually broadening his responsibilities to include preparing vegetables, corn bread and chicken. Later in life, he became known around Covington for his decadent coconut and fried peach pies and German chocolate cakes.
When he was 8, Wilborn and his family packed their belongings onto a wagon pulled by a mule and moved from Morgan County across the line into Newton.
His work ethic and stellar reputation ensured that he always had a job in adulthood, and often, two or three at a time. In fact, Wilborn says he never had to ask for a job, or even fill out an application.
In the 1960s, a young husband and father, Wilborn provided for his family by working about an hour each morning dusting and sweeping at J.C. Poole, then immediately heading over to People's Drug Store for a four-hour shift as a delivery boy, then rushing home for a two-hour break before he had to be at Bibb Manufacturing Company in Porterdale for the 3 to 11 shift.
Wilborn eventually became a salesman and handled alterations for J.C. Poole. When that store shut down in 1997, Philip Cohen, owner of Cohen's Men's Shop, persuaded Wilborn to delay his dream of going to nursing school to come and work for him. He remained there for nine years. Wilborn still does alterations out of a small house on Brown Street.
At 72, he hasn't slowed down, nor does he intend to: with a grandmother who lived to age 97, an aunt who made it to 94 and a father who celebrated 91 birthdays, Wilborn is convinced he's got many more good years ahead.
"I've got to top them," he said. "I'm going to get to 150."
If staying active is the secret to a long life, Wilborn might just reach his goal.
In addition to his alterations business, he is a substitute teacher and can be found most weekdays at one of the county schools, helping students of all ages learn more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. Wilborn makes sure to give students lessons in life as well as academics.
He tells them, "Your first impression, you can't go back and change that," and, "You've got to talk to people nice. I don't care what kind of person they are, you have to have a calm voice because everybody has feelings."
Wilborn decided to become a substitute in hopes of making a difference in a child's life, after a volunteer role with Juvenile Court exposed him to troubled youth.
"I've seen sad things in court. I left crying four times. Sometimes there wasn't always a person that needed to be there with that child. I wondered about what I could do to help that child," he said. He's been helping children for 10 years, substitute teaching and participating in the annual celebration of Dr. Seuss' birthday by reading books by the famous children's author while wearing a red and white striped top hat.
"People come up to me on the street and recognize me from when they were in pre-k. I don't know who they are but they know me," he said.
He tries to pass along the life lessons that helped him when he was a child.
"I thank God that other people made a difference in my life. They corrected me when I was wrong and it matured me and made a man out of me."
On Friday and Saturday nights, Wilborn is a greeter at RL's Off the Square, a Cajun restaurant downtown. He also assists with the caretaking of an 86-year-old man, nightly bathing and dressing him for bed. It's a way for Wilborn to practice his nursing skills, though he never earned that degree. In the past, he volunteered with the Newton Medical Center Auxiliary, working in the emergency room triage area. He hasn't given up on the dream of being a nurse, and hopes some day he can return to college.
Wilborn is also on the board of directors of Keep Covington-Newton Beautiful, which planted a tree at the library in his honor this Arbor Day. He's on the board of Challenge Charter Academy as well.
Wilborn said he needs little sleep. He goes to bed between 11:30 and midnight and rises at 5 a.m.
A pianist, he's regularly solicited to play at his church, but says he rarely has time for that hobby these days. Some day he hopes to carve out the time to visit local nursing homes and entertain the residents.
Wilborn has also ventured into the political arena, serving on the Covington City Council for 14 years and, as mayor pro tem, was called upon to serve as acting mayor for several months.
Wilborn said he hopes to leave a legacy for his two children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren by living by the advice he got about 25 years ago from Dr. Melvin Baker's grandmother, "Mother Baker": "She said, 'Boy, the recipe to a long life is treating everybody right.'"
Wilborn tells his grandchildren, "You've got to do the right thing. That's what carries you through in this world, is the right thing. You just can't do the wrong thing because there's no future in that."