May 1, 2016
Editor’s note: In celebration of Older Americans Month and the theme “Blaze a Trail,” LifeSpire of Virginia is featuring one resident a week from its four continuing care retirement communities who most embodies the characteristics of a “trailblazer” in wellness, community and hospitality.
By Ann Lovell
RICHMOND, Virginia—Many of the homeless in Richmond’s fan district know Buddy Hamilton by name.
“Buddy is a great guy,” says Robert Taylor, 60, a weekly guest of the homeless ministry of First Baptist Church, Richmond. “The way he greets people, his personality, I just love Buddy.”
“Robert and I have known each other a long time,” Hamilton agrees, smiling. The spry centenarian reaches around the taller, younger man to give him a pat on the back.
As a volunteer calls Robert to take his turn in the clothes closet, one of two uniformed police officers patiently answers a young woman’s questions. Other guests enjoy coffee and a pastry, waiting their turn for a shower or a snack bag. A few moments before, senior pastor Jim Somerville offered a short sermon. A few heads nodded as the pastor spoke, and some murmured an “Amen” or two. The atmosphere feels like family. Hamilton smiles as he surveys it all.
“This is a sanctuary for them,” Hamilton says. “There is no anxiety or fear here. They get to know the police, and the police get to know them. Because of that, they know they are safe.”
Hamilton, who will celebrate his 100th birthday May 3, volunteers every week in the homeless ministry of the downtown Richmond church, where he has been a member 82 years. He drives himself and two friends, Al Astle, who will be 100 in August, and Jack Mitchell, 90. Astle and Mitchell also volunteer in the ministry.
“Buddy really takes ownership of the shower ministry,” says Vicky Nicholau, who coordinates the ministry as a volunteer. “He’s here every Wednesday. The guests love him.”
A resident of LifeSpire of Virginia’s Lakewood retirement community since 1999, Hamilton is one of LifeSpire’s featured trailblazers during Older Americans Month in May. The U.S. Administration for Community Living sets aside May each year to recognize the contributions of older Americans. The 2016 theme is “Blaze a Trail.”
“A LifeSpire trailblazer is a resident of one of our communities who models wellness, community and hospitality,” says Jonathan Cook, LifeSpire President and CEO. “We honor and respect Mr. Hamilton for his continuing contributions to our community.”
Hamilton seems to pay little attention to such accolades, but he has a glimmer in his eye when he offers his secret to a long life.
“Pay attention,” Hamilton says. “Listen to what God knows to be best.”
A LIFETIME OF HONOR
Born in 1916 in a house built by his grandfather on Richmond’s Libbie Hill, Hamilton learned to fly when he was 18 years old on a gravel field at Richard E. Byrd flying field (now Richmond International Airport). Later, he was a captain for TWA’s international division in the north and south Atlantic. During World War II, most planes of value to the government were in the hands of commercial airlines, Hamilton explains. As a result, the government conscripted TWA and all other airlines to fly military missions, and TWA’s crews were some of the first to make long-range flights over water during daylight hours.
After the war Hamilton returned to Richmond and rejoined his family’s paper converting business. Eventually, he and his brother, Dick, bought the business from their father and ran it together for nearly 40 years. Hamilton retired in 1998 at age 82.
Throughout his life, Hamilton has also been active in FBC Richmond, where he has taught Sunday School and served as a deacon. He is the last elected “deacon for life,” and the Sunday School class he attends but no longer teaches — called “The Buddy Hamilton class” — is one of the church’s largest.
“It’s the only Sunday School class we have named for a person,” Somerville says.
But balancing his spiritual life and his professional life was often challenging, Hamilton acknowledges.
“For most of my life, I put a lot of effort into my business,” Hamilton says. “I had one foot in the secular world and one foot in the spiritual world.”
Then, when he was about 55 years old, the then-Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention sponsored a lay renewal weekend at FBC Richmond. During that weekend, Hamilton heard the testimony of a man “who had chosen intentionally to focus on the things of God.”
“I decided I would do the same thing,” Hamilton recalls. “It seems like a small step, but it was life-changing for me.”
FOCUSED ON OTHERS
Learning to pay attention to the things of God helped him prioritize and look beyond himself, Hamilton says.
“The real sin of the world is inordinate self-interest,” Hamilton explains. “Every sin can be traced to selfishness that starts at birth. I think this selfishness is wired into us from birth to allow us to survive.
As our parents respond to our cries, we begin to think we are the king,” Hamilton continues. “To overcome this innate selfishness I must be willing to give my thoughts and words to the Lord before they become audible and trigger action.”
Hamilton’s character and spiritual insight are highly respected among those who know him, says Somerville.
“Buddy offers the perspective of years of experience, but he is remarkably open-minded,” Somerville says. “When Buddy speaks, heads swivel to hear what he has to say. People trust him. There is universal recognition that he helped make us who we are.”
In addition to his work in the homeless ministry, Hamilton delivers “Meals on Wheels” monthly to Richmond’s Jackson Ward.
“Some people claim that’s a bad part of town, but I don’t think so,” Hamilton says with a smile. “I have some great friends there.”
Ann Lovell is Corporate Director of Communications for LifeSpire of Virginia, formerly Virginia Baptist Homes. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (804) 521-9192.
LifeSpire of Virginia operates four continuing care retirement communities in Virginia: The Chesapeake in Newport News, The Culpeper in Culpeper, The Glebe in Daleville and Lakewood in Richmond.