Loyal employee

Merle Claunch was sitting on a stool next to a table filled with refreshments at Tupelo Hardware Co. when Joe Young, a longtime customer of the store, paid a visit.
When Young found out the food was for Claunch’s farewell reception from the store after working there 60 years, he decided to poke some fun at the honoree.
“Sixty years,” said Young, who lives near the Union community. “That’s how long we’ve had to put up with him.”
Claunch countered back: “Joe was an old man when I started working here.”
“You’ve must’ve been 12 when you started here,” Young, 76, replied. “No,” Claunch answered. “I was 17. I’m 77 now.”
The two men laughed, and then Young praised Claunch for his lengthy service and assistance to customers like himself.
“It has been a while,” Young said, to which Claunch replied, “It sure has.”
“Well, congratulations,” said Young, reaching over to shake Claunch’s hand.
Young was among a steady stream of people who offered well wishes Sept. 28 to a man who devoted six decades to one employer. They praised him for his loyalty, and Claunch was grateful for the commitment the store showed him over the years.
“I had other offers to work elsewhere, but these people were good to me,” Claunch said. “It’s a family operation and I was motivated to stay here. They afforded me a good salary. It’s been a good 60 years.”

Farm boy to salesman
Claunch went to work at Tupelo Hardware in 1949, just months after graduating from Cedar Hill School in northwest Lee County. He was hired after his second interview with store owner George H. Booth.
“I was a farm boy coming into a business,” said Claunch, taking a break from the reception in his honor to talk about his life. “I had a good education, but I wasn’t educated in business. Tupelo Hardware gave me a good education in business.”
Claunch’s job at the store was on hold for three years when he served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean Conflict. When he returned in 1954, he noticed the store and his home county were changing.
Northeast Mississippi was switching from being an agricultural region to industry. Factories were being built, and Claunch said Tupelo Hardware made the adjustment to serve the new companies.
“You could see the change coming,” he said. “Mr. Booth changed his inventory from farm products to industrial supplies. He saw the need for supplying hardware to the maintenance departments in the factories.”
Booth assigned Claunch to “go outside” as a salesman to call on the factories like Pennsylvania Tire, Rockwell and Futorian, and other hardware stores in the region. He was the store’s only salesman for 40 years.
“I would sell in a 60-mile radius of Tupelo,” Claunch said. “Putting me out there as a 22-year-old man was one of the things that gave me the incentive to stay as long as I did. I was self-motivated. I had a challenge all the time to sell.”

Paying tribute
Claunch became a part-time employee when he turned 65 in 1997. To customers like Joe Young, Claunch remained a reliable presence at Tupelo Hardware.
Tupelo Hardware owner George H. Booth II – the grandson of the man who hired Claunch – said Claunch excelled at his work, and it enabled him to stay as long as he did.
“When people find the right niche, they just hold on,” Booth said. “It’s definitely good for our company. People come for and take advice, and the people who are able to give that enjoy being here.”
The long list of people who attended Claunch’s retirement reception included family and friends, co-workers, store customers, city and county dignitaries and representatives from factories and stores in the region.
In addition to being a hardware goods supplier, Claunch was also a buyer of lawn and garden supplies for the store. The Rotary Corp., a Georgia-based maker of outdoor power equipment parts from whom Claunch bought from, sent three people to Tupelo for Claunch’s reception.
“We had a big crowd of people,” Claunch said. “It makes me feel real good I was thought of. I enjoyed my work and I enjoyed the people.”

Contact Neighbors Editor Bobby Pepper at (662) 678-1592.

Bobby Pepper/Lee County Neighbors

Click video to hear audio