CLAYTON -- Elton Pittman, an iconic business owner in Clayton, passed away Monday evening. He was 89 years old.
“Mr. Pittman is a huge piece of history in Clayton,” said Mayor Jody McLeod.
Part of his reputation will be carried on in the jewelry he created that is still worn and cherished today, and his contributions to downtown will continue to be appreciated for decades. Pittman operated Pittman’s Jewelers at 400 E. Main Street for 55 years with his wife Laura Lee.
“I got interested in jewelry because of the mechanics, especially watches. They always have fascinated me,” Pittman said in an interview in the Clayton News-Star published in October 1973.
In the 1960s and 1970s, his store was the go-to place for a bride to register. He sold glassware, stemware, chinaware, crystal, luggage, and cameras, in addition to engagement rings. Pittman and his wife worked as a business duo, with Laura Lee doing the bookkeeping, him doing the watchmaking, and both running the shop. Pittman’s was the first store in town to have fluorescent lights.
Mary Barbour, a longtime employee of Elmore Furniture Company on Main Street, said she got her engagement ring from Pittman and she still wears it. Barbour said she knew him for at least 50 years. The furniture shop was one of the stops on Pittman’s morning walk to work when he was in good health. She said Pittman would stop by and ask her how the business was doing and give her the scoop from the Chamber of Commerce meeting the night before.
“We would try to solve the problems of the world,” Barbour joked.
As a businessowner, Pittman cared deeply about the other merchants in town. He was one of the youngest members of the Clayton Merchants Association, which later became the Chamber of Commerce. In 1961, he served as president of the Chamber of Commerce.
Inspiring a new downtown
His legacy will live on through the impact he made in bringing downtown to life. “He was always proud that we made it more attractive,” said Joyce Blackley, of Blackley’s Printing. “He was the one who helped instigate raising the money for the holly trees on Main Street.” Pittman was a founding member of what has become the Clayton Downtown Development Association, which he served from 1989 to 2009.
Blackley was also involved in what became the CDDA. In 1980, she and Elton went to Tarboro to see what they were doing to revitalize their downtown. “His vision was making Clayton a better place to come and shop and impress people,” said Blackley.
It is thanks to Pittman that the town has Horne Square, now used as a place to hold markets, including the farmer’s market. He sold the property to the town.
Outside work, Pittman shared his time volunteering with the Red Cross and the United Fund. In 1973 he served as the head of the Service to Military Families division of the Red Cross in Clayton. It was his job to contact members of families and servicemen when a death occured or when a serviceman was required to return home from his station.
Pittman’s personality made him stand out. He never made a fast decision.
“Every committee or organization I was on with Elton, he automatically assumed the role of devil’s advocate,” said McLeod. “He wanted people to think all the way through the process.” To some, it may have seemed ornery, but the outcomes of projects he worked on proved it was his commitment to having the best outcome possible, said McLeod.
McLeod said that ‘go slow’ attitude was because Pittman loved Clayton more than perhaps anyone. Pittman arrived in Clayton in 1947. He was born in Micro and graduated from watchmaking college in Spencer, near Salisbury. He opened his first shop in Clayton the same year he moved to town.
Even when Pittman and his wife closed the store in 2009 and retired, he was optimistic about the growth potential for businesses in Clayton. In a 2009 interview with the Clayton News-Star, Pittman shared his optimism for Clayton’s future. “If I were a younger man, I wouldn’t close up for nothing… There’s growth left here for anybody who wants to come to Clayton,” Pittman said.
Visitation will be at First Baptist Church, Clayton on Thursday, January 31 at 2 p.m. with funeral services to follow at 3 p.m.