FAIRMONT — Charles Kemp has always been a community servant and strong proponent of his lifelong home of Fairmont. A school teacher for 40 years, a commissioner for 36 years, and a mayor for eight years, there are few Fairmont residents whose lives he has not directly touched over the years.
“My whole life has been about service,” Kemp, 67, told The Robesonian last week. “My concern is to serve, empower and lift up the people of Fairmont.”
For Kemp, his commitment to better his community and make lives better for Fairmont residents is a driving force behind his ability to accept his devastating defeat to veteran town Commissioner Bobby Charles Townsend in Tuesday’s mayoral election. Kemp lost his bid for a third term by about 80 votes, and has challenged the results.
“If you don’t try to change society and make things better, you are not doing your part,” Kemp said. ” … While one door closed for me on Tuesday, another one opened. I am moving on with my service. I intend to serve the people of this town until I’m physically unable to move.”
Kemp said that he plans to work with local youths, mentoring those who are either being bullied.
“I’d like to get permission from school officials to work with middle school students who are being bullied,” he said. “I know young people, and I’ve never been around kids that I couldn’t communicate with and at the end of the day not bond with.”
Kemp said he will do the mentoring as a volunteer, free of charge.
“Many of these kids being bullied have no one to talk with about their problems,” he said. “They get lost and fall through a crack in the floor.”
Kemp said he will also continue to help the town in its revitalization efforts.
“I believe the town deserves revitalization,” he said. “But there is no grant money available, so it is going to take an active business organization, separate from government to recruit businesses.
“We have to try to find ways to improve the downtown. The downtown is the heart of Fairmont,” Kemp said. “I don’t think we can ever make the town like it was in the 50s and 60s when tobacco drove the economy. But we have to try to go back and create some of the past … . People will not come downtown if there are no shops, and shops won’t come downtown if there are no shoppers. But if we can fill the main street with interesting businesses, people will come.”
Kemp attributes his social and ethical values to his aunts, Ora Hayes and Ruth Ford, with whom he lived in Fairmont from the age of 6 to 23.
“They insisted on manners and that everyone, no matter what race, should be treated equally,” he said. “I was told often that it’s your obligation to give back to your community.”
Kemp’s life was altered dramatically on July 3, 1964, when he broke his neck diving into a farm pond. The accident left him in traction for 70 days at Duke Medical Center, cost him a college baseball scholarship, shattered his dream to become a U.S. Secret Service agent — and almost sentenced him to a wheelchair.
“I was angry and didn’t know if I would ever walk again,” Kemp said. “But I committed myself at that time that if I ever got back to Fairmont I would devote my life to doing whatever I could to help those in my hometown.”
In 1969, Kemp taught his first year of school in Marietta. He then taught history and civics in Fairmont for 30 years, followed by another decade of classroom teaching at high schools in Dillon and Lake View, S.C.
In 1972, he started a youth center on Thompson Street and in 1973 established the Fairmont Recreation Center, where he served as director until 1982. He was elected to the town Board of Commissioners in 1977, a position he held until being elected mayor in 2005.
Kemp said that when he first became mayor, “people had lost confidence in their government.”
“People felt the government was not listening to them,” he said. “I ran for mayor to try to correct this.”
Kemp said that he believes he has been successful in helping to get Fairmont moving in the right direction, as well as restoring people’s faith in government.
“At times it was a lot of work,” he said, “but successes have fallen in place.”
Kemp said that he has been able to successfully raise money for town projects, saving the town thousands of dollars. Thanks to his fund raising, the town now holds an annual Fourth of July celebration; has two downtown parks; an announcement sign in front of the local library; a “Memory Lane” has been established between a two-store complex on Main Street; and a billboard on Interstate 95 directs travelers looking for the shortest route to the South Carolina beaches to pass through downtown Fairmont.
“The difference between me and others is that a lot of people talk about getting things done,” Kemp said. “I don’t. I just do things.”
For most people, Kemp said, it’s hard for them to understand that it’s not “self interest or power” that motivates him to public service.
“I don’t think they know what drives me,” he said. “If they understood the commitment I made on the day I left Duke (Hospital), they would understand it’s not self-interest or power. I left 13 others that day who would never walk again. Why should I complain about a lot of problems here or hurdles to overcome?”
According to Kemp, the poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is a strong motivator in his life.
It ends with this:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
“I’m not ready to stop yet. I have promises to keep,” Kemp said.