Centenarian: Key to long life is to 'listen to what God knows to be best'

by Ann Lovell |

(Ann Lovell)Buddy Hamilton, right, poses with Robert Taylor, 60, at First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va. Taylor is a guest of the church's homeless ministry where Hamilton regularly volunteers.

RICHMOND, Va. (Christian Examiner) — Buddy Hamilton has some advice for those who want to live a long life.

"Pay attention," Hamilton says. "Listen to what God knows to be best."

Hamilton, who celebrated his 100th birthday May 3, volunteers every week in the homeless ministry of First Baptist Church, Richmond, where he has been a member 82 years. He drives himself and two friends, Al Astle, who will be 100 in August, and Jack Mitchell, 90. Astle and Mitchell also volunteer in the ministry.

"Buddy really takes ownership of the shower ministry," says Vicky Nicholau, who coordinates the ministry as a volunteer. "He's here every Wednesday. The guests love him."

Many of those homeless guests, like Robert Taylor, 60, know Hamilton by name.

"Buddy is a great guy," Taylor says. "The way he greets people, his personality, I just love Buddy."

"Robert and I have known each other a long time," Hamilton agrees, smiling. The spry centenarian reaches around the taller, younger man to give him a pat on the back.

As a volunteer calls Taylor to take his turn in the clothes closet, one of two uniformed police officers patiently answers a young woman's questions. Other guests enjoy coffee and a pastry, waiting their turn for a shower or a snack bag. A few moments before, senior pastor Jim Somerville offered a short sermon. A few heads nodded as the pastor spoke, and some murmured an "Amen" or two. The atmosphere feels like family. Hamilton smiles as he surveys it all.

"This is a sanctuary for them," Hamilton says. "There is no anxiety or fear here. They get to know the police, and the police get to know them. Because of that, they know they are safe."

A LIFETIME OF HONOR

Born in 1916 in a house built by his grandfather on Richmond's Libbie Hill, Hamilton spent his early adult years as a captain for TWA's international division in the north and south Atlantic. He learned to fly when he was 18 years old on a gravel field at Richard E. Byrd flying field (now Richmond International Airport).

Then, during World War II, most planes of value to the government were in the hands of commercial airlines, Hamilton explains. As a result, the government conscripted TWA and all other airlines to fly military missions, and TWA's crews, including Hamilton's, were some of the first to make long-range flights over water during daylight hours.

After the war Hamilton returned to Richmond and rejoined his family's paper converting business. Eventually, he and his brother, Dick, bought the business from their father and ran it together for nearly 40 years. Hamilton retired in 1998 at age 82.

Throughout his life, Hamilton has also been active in FBC Richmond, where he has taught Sunday School and served as a deacon. He is the last elected "deacon for life," and the Sunday School class he attends but no longer teaches — called "The Buddy Hamilton class" — is one of the church's largest.

"It's the only Sunday School class we have named for a person," Somerville says.

But balancing his spiritual life and his professional life was often challenging, Hamilton acknowledges.

"For most of my life, I put a lot of effort into my business," Hamilton says. "I had one foot in the secular world and one foot in the spiritual world."

Then, when he was about 55 years old, the then-Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention sponsored a lay renewal weekend at FBC Richmond. During that weekend, Hamilton heard the testimony of a man "who had chosen intentionally to focus on the things of God."

"I decided I would do the same thing," Hamilton recalls. "It seems like a small step, but it was life-changing for me."

FOCUSED ON OTHERS

Learning to pay attention to the things of God helped him prioritize and look beyond himself, Hamilton says.

"The real sin of the world is inordinate self-interest," Hamilton explains. "Every sin can be traced to selfishness that starts at birth. I think this selfishness is wired into us from birth to allow us to survive.

As our parents respond to our cries, we begin to think we are the king," Hamilton continues. "To overcome this innate selfishness I must be willing to give my thoughts and words to the Lord before they become audible and trigger action."

Hamilton's character and spiritual insight are highly respected among those who know him, says Somerville.

"Buddy offers the perspective of years of experience, but he is remarkably open-minded," Somerville says. "When Buddy speaks, heads swivel to hear what he has to say. People trust him. There is universal recognition that he helped make us who we are."

In addition to his work in the homeless ministry, Hamilton delivers "Meals on Wheels" monthly to Richmond's Jackson Ward.

"Some people claim that's a bad part of town, but I don't think so," Hamilton says with a smile. "I have some great friends there."

Ann Lovell is a writer based in Richmond, Virginia.