Community remembers the contributions of a 'simple man'
Clif Knight, Hartselle Enquirer
Every community has its own unforgettable character. It matters not if he or she is black or white, rich or poor, short or tall or young or old. The label becomes attached over time as the result of one's visibility in the public eye and uncommon habits, behavior or lifestyle.
Such a character was Clayborn "Slim" Waits, a tall, skinny man who spent the better part of his life walking the main streets of Hartselle and working in the yards of some of the city's most prominent families. He died May 3 in the bathroom he shared with a fellow tenant in Estelle Smith's boarding house at 300 Rock Street. He apparently died of a heart attack. He was an 81-year-old bachelor.
Slim was born and raised in Lawrence County and spent the early years of his adult life there as a farm worker. He moved to Hartselle about 53 years ago, boarding for 20 years with the late Mrs. Obie Hunter on Main Street and the last 33 years with her daughter at the Smith Boarding House.
"He would work all week on a farm in Lawrence County and come over here on Friday night to find a place to room and board for the weekend," Smith recalled. "Mama would take him in if she had a room. If she didn't have one, she'd let him sleep in the swing on the front porch.
"He stayed with us so long he became one of the family. He had palsy and bad hearing and had not been able to walk downtown since last fall. I would drop him off at the cafe on days I had exercise classes and take him to the barbershop for a shave, to visit his doctor and to church on Sunday morning.
"He was a hard worker and was always doing something to help out. On the day he died he pulled up weeds in the back yard for a short time. Then, he came inside and said he didn't feel well and was going upstairs to rest. He felt better when he came down that evening for supper. He ate some pinto beans and cornbread. That was his favorite meal," she said.
"He was a good Christian man and the most humble person I've ever known."
Slim's height, muscles and bones frame made him stand out in the crowd as did his dress. He wore overalls, shirt, brogan shoes and a felt hat most of the time. An exception was on Sunday when he would put on a white shirt and tie to attend worship services at Pattillo Street Church of God.
A measurement made by the undertaker at Peck Funeral Home indicated that Slim was 6 foot, 4 inches tall. However, he gave the appearance of being a lot taller, especially if seen getting up from a bench on a downtown sidewalk or from the crouched position he often took while working in a yard. He walked with back slightly bend forward in a long, slow gait and could be seen often tipping his hat to passersby.
Slim was a regular breakfast customer at Debby Ann's Main Street Diner.
"He ate here every morning between 6:30 and 7 a.m.," owner Debbie Orr said. "and I've been told by previous owners that he began eating here about 20 years ago. We served him two scrambled eggs and a biscuit. He'd ask us for another biscuit and some jelly if he was still hungry. We served him coffee with a straw because his hands were too shaky to hold the cup.
"In the 20 months I've been here he wasn't charged for his meals but from time to time we'd get cash donations from people to help defray the cost," she added. "He'd usually stay here for an hour or two and when he left he always took a handful of peppermints from a basket we kept on the cash register counter.
"We baked him a cake and gave him a party on his 80th birthday. We all loved him like a grandpa and felt honored to be able to help take care of him."
Among the families for whom Slim did yard work and other handyman chores are Jim and Bonnie Norman. He worked for them two days a week when they lived in the Oden House at the corner of Main and Hammitt Streets.
"He was just the dearest and most dependable person you could imagine," Bonnie Norman recalled. "You could always depend on him being on time and ready to go to work, and he'd do anything you asked him to do. I would have to scold him a little bit because he wouldn't ask the people he was working for the same rate of pay that other people doing the same work were charging."
Slim made it a habit to help out at funerals of the people he knew.
"The first thing he'd do when the paper came was to check out the death notices," his landlord said. "If he knew the person who died he'd go to Peck Funeral Home on the day of the funeral and help load the flowers and hitch a ride to the cemetery. He loved the hearse and they would let him ride in on the way back to town. If he saw somebody he knew, he'd roll down the window and tip his hat."