Never has there been a more genteel man than Charlie Turner McCullen Jr., and never will anyone’s sweet smile, twinkling eyes or humble demeanor be missed as much as that of Sampson’s long-time clerk of court.
McCullen, known endearingly by most as Mr. Charlie or Charlie T, died Friday just a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday.
Larger than life, even in his waning years, McCullen’s passing brought shock and sadness to many in the community who have known and respected the diminutive Southern gentleman for decades, and simply expected him to live forever.
In many ways he will, given that McCullen, the longest serving clerk of court in Sampson County, was so deeply entrenched in this community that he became synonymous with it. Mention Sampson County anywhere in the state from the late 1970s to the early 2000s and the first question ask was always, “Do you know Charlie McCullen?”
And the reply was a matter of fact, “of course we know Mr. Charlie, doesn’t everyone?”
In truth, everyone did.
From the time he began work at what was then the Agriculture Stabilization Conservation Service (ASCS) until he was appointed Sampson County Clerk of Court in 1973, filling the unexpired term of Charles Reeves, McCullen’s love of people drew him to them, and, not surprisingly, them to him. Before long, the Sampson County native was beloved by just about everyone who ever came in contact with him.
That was compounded as he dove deeper into politics and settled into his job as clerk, a position he won election to every single time he ran. People just seemed to migrate toward McCullen. Some of it, no doubt, was because of his infectious personality, but more than likely it was just as much because of the fair way in which he treated people of all walks of life, all races and even both sides of the political coin.
McCullen knew no prejudice. He treated people with respect and believed them all to be his neighbor.
A devout Baptist and a former deacon chair at his long-time church, Brown’s Baptist, McCullen lived by Jesus’ admonition to love his neighbor as himself, and he assumed everyone with whom he came in contact with, on the job or off, was that neighbor.
That’s probably why he was often referred to as “the people’s clerk,” a man who went out of his way to assist first and ask questions later.
A staunch Democrat, McCullen quickly became synonymous with the Democratic Party in Sampson County and was often referred to as the uncrowned leader of the party even though he never was its chairman. Democrats respected McCullen for his wisdom, his easy-going manner and, of course, for his ability to take landslide victories election after election, garnering just as many Republican votes as Democratic ones. That’s why those running for office sought his advice and his endorsement year after year.
To McCullen’s credit, his remarkable political tenure and the following that brought, never went to his head. Ever humble, he seemed to always be amazed at the votes he received and the confidence people placed in him, always noting that God had blessed him and that he, in turn, would do his best to uphold the job the people had so graciously given him.
He did just that, working for 30 years without a blemish on his record, and leaving office still admired and respected by a community that had come to think of him as family. Not bad for a man who in 1973 didn’t think he would hold the office for more than a year or two!
McCullen loved the community back, and felt strongly that his life of public service was God-directed and intended to help a place that, all his life, had always been there for him. He gave of himself every day, respected the office he held and the people he came in contact with, often paying his last respects by attending the funerals of dozens upon dozens of Sampsonians through the years.
While others often joked about McCullen’s funeral attendance, he took it very seriously, believing that it was his duty to pay those respects, and he did so in that gentle manner that was never intrusive and always welcomed.
In his way, attending those funerals showed his love of this community and its people.
The only thing McCullen loved more was his dear Eleanor, the wife he cherished and who stood by his side until her death a few years back. Together, they made a tremendous team, and no one knew that more than McCullen himself.
Today we are sure McCullen is holding Eleanor tight, looking down from heaven and smiling, knowing he lived life to the fullest, leaving a legacy of service behind.