Paul Calame introduced me to James “Tot” Lester several years ago, and I’m so glad he did.
I’ve found that in every small town I’ve lived in, there’s that guy you depend on for various projects.
In Holly Springs, Tot was my man.
Whether it was weed-eating, replacing rotten wood, painting or other small jobs, I knew I could always give Tot a call. Or if I saw that white pickup parked on South Center Street, I knew I could find him close by and tell him I needed him for the next handyman project.
He would say he would get to it, and he always did, sooner than later. And he always did the job right.
I trusted Tot. And through that trust, we developed a friendship.
He often stopped by the office, walked in the front door, and I’d immediately know what he wanted.
I would walk to the front counter, and Tot would say, “Barry, I need $20, and I will pay you back tomorrow.”
I always gave it to him. That’s because I knew I would see him the next day with the $20 in his hand. He was a man of his word.
Sometimes, when out of town, I would get a call from Tot. He would need something, and I couldn’t immediately help. It made me feel bad. Tot was a person I always wanted to help because Tot helped me.
But Tot was much more than a maintenance man. He was a fine musician.
I wrote a feature story on Tot for the 2013 Profile Edition of The South Reporter. The headline read, “Lester raised on love for music.”
Tot was a guitar picker from childhood. His father and grandfather played music, too. He tried the saxophone in school but said, “I liked the guitar better.”
He played with a lot of groups – like the Wandering Jubilees, the Gospel Travelers and the Southern Aires. He was once a regular at Bikers and Blues downtown with his band Reunion.
“Sometimes it’s the whole band and sometimes it’s just me,” he told in that interview four years ago. “I play with different folks.”
Tot did a lot of work around town, including handyman tasks for Annie Moffitt and Paul Calame.
“He was one of the most responsible and generous persons I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing,” Paul said.
“As our relationship grew, we were more like brothers than employer and employee. He taught me so much. What I did for him, he gave back to me twofold.
“He will be greatly missed by me and the entire community. He gave so much to everybody.”
Tot died August 18 after a battle with cancer. His funeral service was August 26 at Mt. Ollie MB Church.
He told me in that 2013 interview, “I don’t get paid for everything I do. Some people just need help sometimes.”
Tot was raised in the church by good parents and taught to work hard. He learned the importance of trust, honesty, responsibility and generosity.
I still have Tot’s number in my cell phone. It’s difficult to delete it. I might need him.
Rest in peace, my friend.