By Jeff Keeling
As high-ranking retired military officers and a PhD entered the East Tennessee State University Army ROTC Hall of Fame Friday, a quiet, humble man stood among them as an equal. Carl Hamilton had no bars on his uniform, but his decades-long impact on the program, his family and the people around him stood him in good stead.
With his only grandchild and close companion, Parker Winebarger, among a number of people in attendance Friday, the ROTC program’s first federal civilian employee was filled with gratitude when his turn to speak arrived.
“People, I’m very grateful for this honor, and I want to thank those who elected me,” said Hamilton, whose nominator, former ROTC commander Col. Richard Measner (1988-1992) was out of state and unable to attend. “I want to thank Col. Measner, who for whatever reason thought that I was worthy to be nominated.”
A Johnson Citian through and through, Hamilton lived on New Street as a young child, before he moved with his parents to East Chilhowie Avenue as a teenager. His father, Cecil, worked at Empire Furniture near the intersections of Broadway and Fairview Avenue.
After attending Stratton Elementary and then junior high on North Roan Street, Hamilton graduated from the old Science Hill High School in 1957 and headed off to East Tennessee State College.
“That was at a time when ROTC was a requirement for all men during their first two years at ETSU,” Hamilton remembered. In 1959, he entered the Navy, serving four years. After short stints at a couple of jobs, and marriage to the former Jo-Ann Smith in 1965, Hamilton found his ultimate niche, becoming the ETSU ROTC program’s very first federal civilian employee in 1996.
For 32 years, through numerous commanding officers and through the commissioning of 850 cadets as Second Lieutenants in the U.S. Army, Hamilton served the program – first as cadet records clerk and then, starting in 1977, as supply technician.
That’s what Hamilton was doing when Measner arrived to take over the program. Measner was the type of leader who tried to get a solid assessment of his staff upon taking a command, and what he saw in Hamilton gave him complete confidence.
“Carl absolutely knew what he was doing,” Measner, who has remained good friends with Hamilton through the years, said last week. “He could be a little bit stern, so the cadets weren’t always quite sure how to take him, but he was going to make sure everything was in order.”
“Everything” ran the gamut from uniforms and ammunition to pyrotechnics. And the flip side to Hamilton’s stern approach, Measner said, was this: “All you had to do was tell him, ‘hey, I think we’re going to need this at this particular time,’ and that was it. It happened. So we established a rapport really quickly.”
By the time of Measner’s 1988 arrival, Debbie Donaldson already had four years in with the ROTC program. Today her title is human resource assistant, but among other things she fulfills the role once occupied by Hamilton, and like Measner, she remembers a “very dedicated, very conscientious,” asset to the program.
“He was a good steward of the government’s money,” Donaldson said. “He made sure people got what he needed, and he made sure no one received anything more than that. I don’t know of anybody that didn’t like him among the cadets.”
In 1973, four years before becoming supply technician, Hamilton received the first of two ETSU degrees – a bachelor’s in business. In 1979, he earned a masters in instructional communications.
All the while, Hamilton and Jo-Ann were lovingly raising their only child, Carla. Hamilton also played church league softball – all 10 positions, with a preference for second base – for decades, and has taught Sunday School at The Answer Baptist Church for years.
After retiring, he held on to at least one job at the school that had been such a major part of his life – that of timekeeper for the ETSU Lady Bucs basketball team. His impact is such that Lady Bucs Head Coach Brittney Ezell was on hand to see him honored. Ezell told News and Neighbor she always shakes hands with opposing teams’ scorekeepers and timekeepers, and first met Hamilton in that manner when her Belmont Lady Bruins played the Bucs at Brooks Gym.
“When I arrived here to coach (in 2013) he just said, ‘Welcome home,’” Ezell said.
Home is where Hamilton spends weekday afternoons with Parker, who is in fourth grade at Fairmont Elementary. He picks him up from school while Carla and his father finish their workdays.
Carla Winebarger said the pair has been together nearly every day since Parker was a tiny baby. “When he first found out he’d have a grandchild, he said, ‘I’m not a kid person, I’m not a baby person,’ but that’s his life. Ever since he was born that’s been his little buddy.”
The relationship has been a great comfort to Hamilton, especially since Jo-Ann died five years ago this month, but as in so much of what he does, the benefits have been mutual. The arrangement allows both Parker’s parents to work without exorbitant child care costs, but that’s just par for the course with her father, Carla said.
“I spent a lot of time at his office over at ROTC because I went to University High and I’d go over there after school,” she said. “He’s been my life. I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
Hamilton had an old school job and approached it in an old school fashion, so a little conversation about the extent of his cell phone use Monday wasn’t surprising. He said he told Verizon after an earlier phone became inoperable – “I just want to be able to make calls and receive calls.” Not surprising for a man who handled a wide array of responsibilities in the pre-computer age, before the advent of Excel spreadsheets and Quickbooks.
“He worked on making sure we got our budget so we could get all the supplies he was responsible for procuring,” Measner said. “He was truly a one man show and all of this was done by hand.”
If an attitude of gratitude and humility has allowed Hamilton to gain such a stellar reputation, he expressed it in concluding his acceptance speech Friday.
“To all of you who have been in the military, for all of you who are presently serving in the military, and for those of you who will soon be in the military, I want to thank you for your service to the ROTC and to the United States of America.
“ETSU has always had an outstanding ROTC, and I enjoyed working here for 32 years.”