A highway was dedicated Friday to a man who never held elected office or even had an office.
Ezra DeWitt was not a politician and never had a lot of money. He had to get his first job at age 6, sweeping a school, and barely was able to go through a few grades in school because he was working to help his family get through the Great Depression.
He worked until he died in 1999 at age 83.
DeWitt – pronounced Dee-Witt – was rich, though, in giving kids freedom. Often for little money, or no money.
DeWitt fixed bicycles.
For that, he was, in the words of one of his sons, “a legend.”
“A mountain climber,” said DeWitt’s oldest son, Randy. “No mountain too high. He showed what working meant.”
A two-mile stretch of S.C. 72, called Saluda Road, was dedicated Friday as the Ezra DeWitt Memorial Highway.
The ceremony took place at the Oakdale Volunteer Fire Department, next door to where DeWitt ran a ramshackle bicycle shop and locksmith business, DeWitt’s Bike & Key Shop, for almost 40 years smack in the middle of the stretch of road that now bears his name.
That place had bicycle parts piled up out front of the building, inside the building – anywhere there was a spot to throw another bicycle.
Before that, from soon after World War II through the 1950s, DeWitt ran his shop on Black Street in downtown Rock Hill – almost exactly where City Hall now sits.
No kid ever left DeWitt’s shop without a fixed bicycle. He didn’t care if a kid’s daddy owned a brand new Ford and had a pocketful of money to buy five bikes, or if a barefoot kid showed up pushing a broken bicycle.
“A friend to everybody,” is how Spratt White, whose grandfather ran the first Rock Hill bicycle shop Ezra DeWitt worked in after World War II, described DeWitt. “Kind, honest.”
DeWitt was in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Rodman in Chester County and put in years of service during World War II.
One time decades ago, the story was told Friday, a tiny little kid walked a bicycle with a broken pedal to the DeWitt store. One look at the kid said all anybody needed to know: The kid had no shoes.
DeWitt fixed the pedal and the kid asked how much.
“50 cents,” DeWitt told the kid.
“I ain’t got but a quarter,” the kid said.
“I’ll take the quarter, that’s plenty,” Dewitt told the kid, a stranger, who then hugged that bicycle fixer.
DeWitt didn’t take the quarter, either. He just watched the kid pedal way with a smile and tears in his eyes.
That’s why politicians from the General Assembly and county government, and just regular people from the fire department and more, sat in the bays of that old firehouse to dedicate the highway.
The politicians pushed the idea of naming the road for DeWitt through, the state Department of Transportation put up the signs, and a road was named.
Words that will live forever in the Legislature’s official resolution said this of Ezra DeWitt:
“He was a small man in stature, but had a heart as big as a giant. If a child wanted a bicycle and could not afford it, he would make sure that child got one. When a family could not afford repairs on a bicycle, he made them at no cost to the family.”
The black preacher who opened the dedication, the Rev. Willie Ellison, said DeWitt was a great man to all, and “like a brother” to his own father.
DeWitt was also the guy the Rock Hill chief of police called to make keys for the old city jail when the keys were lost in the middle of the night. He once made a room key for a motel room at Carowinds for cowboy singers Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Nobody knows if DeWitt charged the TV stars or that police chief for his work.
DeWitt and his late wife, Jenette, raised nine children from the living scratched out of those bicycles and keys and locks.
But as the people around the dedication said Friday, hundreds more children in and around Rock Hill got bicycles during the 50 years DeWitt had his shop filled with tires and wheels and frames and handlebars and pedals stacked up all over the place.
The kids showed up with pleading eyes and pockets turned inside out to show emptiness and all left with full hearts and tires filled with air – and hearts filled, too.
“He was generous to everybody,” said Diane Crosby, a daughter who worked for so long to have the road named. “People loved my father – and he loved them.”