The gray ponytail.
The year was 2000, and I was covering stories in Rock Hill maybe a few days. Down the sidewalk of Crawford Road strode this stout, squat man in coveralls and flannel shirt and gray braided ponytail, talking to everybody he met. He stopped two teenagers in their tracks, and his hands waved excitedly. He pointed behind him at the eight-sided building with the spire reaching toward the sky behind him. I thought it was an odd place for a farmer.
At the Emmett Scott Community Center, I brought up the strange sight and the lady said, "That's Hancock. Pastor Hancock from First Calvary up the street. The building with the point on it and all those sides. He's no farmer. He's a legend on this street."
And so he was a legend and still is, the Rev. Larkin Hancock, 35 years in charge at First Calvary Baptist Church. But even legends have to fade away. On Saturday, Hancock, 64, with that signature ponytail, will retire.
Oh sure, First Calvary will continue. The Rev. William Buie Jr., Hancock's handpicked successor, will take over in what Buie said is "another new beginning for this great church."
But there is only one "Hancock" with the gray ponytail.
"He is a cornerstone in this community," Buie said. "I will continue to make this church a social sanctuary for this community, this neighborhood. I will push us into a new era. But you don't replace him."
Hancock arrived 35 years ago to a church building condemned by the city. Membership was about 70. "Five dollars at a time, sometimes," as Hancock puts it, he spearheaded building the octagonal sanctuary that is one of his city's finest and most recognizable buildings. Inside is often filled with more than 400 members.
"I told the architect this was a new millennium coming, we needed a new building different from the old way that showed new thinking," Hancock said.
Hancock came to a neighborhood filled with aging people. So he started an adult day care at his church that remains to this day a staple of community and fellowship.
"Might be my legacy, right there," Hancock said as he listened Wednesday to hymns sung from down deep in souls that he touched for so long.
On Wednesday, 36 people in that day-care room sat in wheelchairs, rocking chairs and folding chairs. Not a person in that room pays for the services they get.
Hancock will stay on as pastor emeritus at the church, so his knowledge and experience will remain there for the asking. But Hancock said as the sung hymn words splashed over him why he was retiring: He is tired.
"I can't do it anymore," He said. "The body says no."
But for years, Hancock always said yes.
Taught in Chester County
Hancock is one of those men who has led a city by words and deeds. He is a Vietnam War combat veteran and a civil rights struggle veteran. He was a schoolteacher in Chester County for decades while at the same time pastoring the church. His church has an almost perpetual open door -- and not just during Sunday services.
"My responsibility is to this whole community," Hancock said. "I considered myself pastor of every person in this community who needed one."
Parishioner Maxine Wylie said Hancock's ponytail is a trademark that identifies Hancock inside and outside the church. I asked Hancock why he has that ponytail, and he said, "People have got to be able to identify you somehow. That's how they identify me."
Physically, sure. Yet, I asked Hancock how he identified or measured success over 35 years. Bankers count money. Athletes count titles. What does a pastor with a braided ponytail who never left the heart of Rock Hill's black community count?
"I count the guy who came up to me a few days ago and told me that if I didn't change his life, he would have ended up in jail," Hancock said. "I count every person who called me at 1:30 in the morning to come to the hospital, and I went every time because they needed me. I count every soul we helped save."
I sure hope somebody up high is keeping score, because that Hancock with the gray ponytail might need extra numbers to tally up what he meant to the rest of us.