May 29—Alonzo D. Middleton knows the value of hard work, taking what he learned from his humble farming roots in Orangeburg to become a successful businessman who served the local community he grew up in for more than 30 years.
The longtime Allstate Insurance agent developed a rapport among the sea of customers who came through his door, whether they were educators, coaches or city leaders.
Tucked away off the St. Matthews Road in a little white house, the Alonzo D. Middleton Agency Inc. has been a fixture in the community since Middleton bought and converted the structure into an office in 1990.
His start with Allstate began as early as 1985, with Middleton first serving out of an insurance booth in the old Sears Roebuck & Company building in Orangeburg with partner Wayne Lorick.
"Back then, Sears was the first place they would put an Allstate agent. When they created the Neighborhood Office Agent program is when I was able to buy a place," Middleton said.
His first office was at 1004 Chestnut St. Middleton then rented an office space at 900 Chestnut St. with partner David Lawson before purchasing his current building at 1712 St. Matthews Road.
His wife of 45 years, Glenda, had by then become his business partner and the rest became history.
"God had blessed us to be in our hometown doing this wonderful work. I started in the Sears store in a booth, and it was about as big as a telephone booth. It wasn't very personable, and then I was able to relocate. Then I bought this (St. Matthews Road) building in about 1990. It just became industrial and commercial in this area. God put me in the right place at the right time," Middleton said.
"We've had some wonderful centers of influence that helped us move forward. After going back and forth and doing some things, God has really blessed me to be able to come home and be at a very fertile part of the community," he said.
Health challenges have recently sidelined the 63-year-old, who officially retired Dec. 31, 2020, after 36 years of service with Allstate. Short-term memory loss and the diabetes which has resulted in poor circulation and the amputation of seven toes have not, however, altered his memory of his humble beginnings and the work ethic that began on his great-grandfather's farm.
'It's been very rewarding'
"I was born on 1994 Myers Road in Orangeburg on my great-grandfather's farm. My mother basically was a single parent. My grandmother raised me right there on the farm. We had apples, scuppernongs, corn, soybeans and all that kind of stuff," Middleton said.
His grandmother, Retha Bell Middleton, worked in the infirmary at then-South Carolina State College.
"She was the center of influence of my life because my mother, Jalania, lived in Winston-Salem. She took care of all the children. You know how in the '50s we kind of did things as a team. Boy, I tell you, they worked me on that farm over there on Myers Road," Middleton said.
Middleton recalled that growing up in Orangeburg had its challenges, including the loss of his uncle, Delano Middleton, in the Orangeburg Massacre of 1968.
It was on that fateful night 53 years ago that S.C. State College students Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond, along with 19-year-old Wilkinson High School student Delano Middleton, were killed and 28 others injured when S.C. Highway Patrol troopers opened fire on a crowd of protesters following three nights of escalating racial tension over efforts to desegregate the All-Star Triangle Bowl.
"Part of my history was football. My uncle played center on the football team and the basketball team, and I was a running back. He taught me everything I knew about football," Middleton said.
He said the loss of his uncle made him "want the things that are good about Orangeburg."
"There is always somebody trying to say something negative about it because of the incident. But it made me realize that my real goal was right here from where I started from, right there at 1994 Myers Road," said Middleton, noting that his uncle always encouraged him to study.
"I've got a picture of him up in the office right now. ... In the 1960s, we had a lot of social uprising and things going on. I was witnessing all these things," he said.
Middleton continued, "I was born in '57, but the '60s was really a rushed time, and I was able to take the energy that I had to do some things a lot more for myself, my wife, my family and for the community of Orangeburg in itself because of the things that did happen here in the '60s. We weren't exempt from that heartbreak."
Middleton, who first met his wife in the seventh grade, is a graduate of Orangeburg-Wilkinson High School and later attended Michigan State University, where he was an award-winning football player and earned a bachelor of arts degree in urban development.
"I still have my association with the university. I played football four years there and enjoyed a wonderful life in a place different from Orangeburg. I was a Parade All-American in football. I wanted to play basketball, but I couldn't hang with the boys," he said.
Middleton said his business acumen came from his late mother.
"I was in North Carolina working around my mother. She worked at Hedgepeth Cleaners, and she kind of gave me a background of selling. She always sold something. Every Saturday, you could find a yard sale somewhere. She really taught me a lot about how to be a presence, trying to encourage someone to take something off your hand that you didn't want to take back home," Middleton said.
He added, "My mother was wonderful. She could sell a burnt spider. She really could find quality in the little small things. I think that's where it came from. God gave me the opportunity and gave me a wife that supported me.
"She's been the CEO of this business ever since we started it. She was the best CEO I could ever have, and the best companion and friend when customers hurt my feelings. This is a business where you don't smile every day even though you're supposed to, but it's been very rewarding, and we did it at home."
'I was just so blessed'
Middleton said a lifelong career in the insurance business began with his two-year stint with American National Insurance.
"I think the Lord had more to do what that than anything. I had so many contacts, and people know I had a lot of contacts. They said, 'Well, why don't you look into this field?' I was with American National first. They just did life insurance and things of that nature. I found out that I had so many friends that were calling me about other lines of insurance, homeowners and this and that," Middleton said.
"I said, 'Well, I better try to see whether I can get with a company with a name brand like that.' I went to a name brand school, Michigan State University, and played football. I said, 'Maybe it works the same way.' I've been blessed now 36 years," he said.
What did he like most about selling insurance?
"I think having the right team to work with. When you go to work and leave with your significant other every day and can really do this job the right way, it's a blessing. The blessing was to have my co-partner in life as my co-partner in work," Middleton said.
He and his wife, Glenda, are the parents of two sons, Alonzo II, 35, and Zachary, 33.
"She would not allow me to miss my appointments or to disrespect anyone, and I respected her. My wife has been my arm, leg, foot, everything. My two boys have come in and learned the business and really give their mother the ultimate respect and honor because I couldn't do it without her," Middleton said.
What did he like least about his job?
"I think the hardest part is finding that you have customers sometimes not give you the correct information, or try to hide information from you in doing your job efficiently because of a bad driver's record, or that kind of thing," Middleton said.
"But mainly, I think the hardest part is to find a location and get a set location to do your job efficiently and not think about all those bills coming in at the same time and paying your people that you have to help you be a better agency," he said.
Middleton continued, "Having people who can do the same job efficiently when you need to take a day off makes a big difference in how we were able to do it so many years. I never had any experience in life after football. I learned to do this by my love of people and the ability to study the manuals and move on. I can't remember a whole lot of people in my family who had this experience in life."
The longtime businessman said he's been blessed.
"I was born in '57, and now we're way in the 2000s. I was just so blessed to be able to be a center of influence in my hometown. It's very difficult sometimes to get people to come to you when they don't really know whether or not you're able to do these things.
"I come from a farming background. Getting the pigs and mules and stuff started was how I born and raised on Myers Road with my great-grandfather. I was able to do some things that I dreamed about doing and not have to play football all the time," Middleton said.
Glenda said it's been hard not being able to serve customers upon her husband's retirement, particularly since many had become like family.
"It becomes one of those things where you make connections with people. I said we've literally served royalty coming through the door: educators, a lot of the city leaders, coaches and community persons and other business persons who we've met. They have entrusted this type of help through him, and that's been a true blessing," she said.
Mrs. Middleton added, "When you look back at things, it's like, wow. So many have come through here, and we've formulated wonderful friendships."
She said they've almost seen the "whole cycle of life" when customer's children come back to them for service.
"They'll refer them to where their ground roots began. That's been a blessing, no doubt. It has been one of those things. The people. I even felt myself crying one day as I was driving up," she noted.
Middleton said, "Sometimes you make good friends and you keep good friends. We've been able to keep most of our friendships, and it's built this business to the point of 36 years."
He also credited other positive influences in his life for his success, including retired Orangeburg businessman George Dean, who owned Dean's Ltd. on the corner of Russell Street.
"George has been a center of influence for many years and somebody that I admire. He's been on the corner a long time. He's been one of those people that just stayed after me to do the right thing," Middleton said.
'It has been an amazing journey'
Glenda said her husband had always been involved in their son's lives, even serving as president of the Parent-Teacher Associations, president of the Booster Clubs, and in various other capacities at their schools, including as a Little League baseball coach.
"I did football and baseball little league, but I did football at the middle schools," Middleton said.
Glenda said, "They could always depend on him to be there. He was always providing different meals, especially with the little leagues. Later on is when the golfing came in for his own personal enjoyment. He got into that and all these trophies would pop up all over the place."
While his sons have not expressed interest in carrying on the insurance business, Middleton is not spending time moping about that.
"I'm closer to Jesus Christ. The difference in my life is knowing that I had a savior saving me while I was on the job. Now that I have surrendered all of my wants, needs and all those desires to the Lord who has provided for me all these years, I am at peace with life and peace in a way that I never thought I would have this kind of life," said Middleton, an active member of Greater Faith Baptist Church in Orangeburg.
He plans to spend his retirement taking it easy with his loving wife by his side.
"My wife is kind of my planner. I don't cook. So I won't be doing that. I used to try to do a little barbecuing, but I don't try to do that anymore. I don't like the smoke and with the way my food tastes after I finish cooking it, sometimes people say, 'Oh no, that's not his gift.' But I let the guys from church do it, and I just help out with the physical part. It takes a gift to do all that," Middleton said.
Glenda said, "He has energy to get out in the yard. We've done that. So the farming and what his grandfather instilled in him is still a blessing. He's a workhouse when he puts his mind to it. Then, of course, the feet and legs start giving way and he goes, 'Oh, I'm tired.' I say, 'Please rest and sit.'"
She continued, "It would be nice to do some traveling, but it's not concretely there just yet. My twin sister lives in Atlanta. I think that's the farthest I've tried to venture out, but Charleston is always a wonderful place just to go and inhale the air there from time to time."
Mrs. Middleton said the couple also enjoys spending time with her 92-year-old mother.
"She likes to get out. She's a retired home economics teacher. Mom used to take her students traveling so many different places, giving them the experience of seeing other parts of the world in a general sense ... She still has that go spirit in her blood."
She said she is also looking forward to her family spending time at the county's nearly completed library and conference center.
"The Lord has protected us in and through it all. It has been an amazing journey. We have served royalty and thank them for allowing us to serve them," she said.
Contact the writer: [email protected] or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD
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