Springfield business owner remembered as tough, but with a soft side

Cleo Guyton
Cleo Guyton

Cassandra Guyton and her sisters wanted a concrete truck to lead their father’s July 11 funeral procession for an obvious reason.

Concrete is what Cleo Guyton had always done, she said.

For his part, Jack Littlejohn, manager of the Ernst Concrete plant on Mitchell Boulevard called providing one of the cleanest of the company’s local trucks a “no-brainer.”

“Cleo did business with us about every day. All our guys loved him, and he was a great guy to be around. I never saw him get mad or frustrated.”

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That cars were still waiting to turn off Plum Street as the Ernst truck was entering the main gate of Ferncliff Cemetery was concrete proof that the guys at Ernst weren’t alone in their opinion.

But those who knew him also knew there was both a hard and soft side to the man who died the night of July 2 in rural Talladega, Ala., not far from where the midwife who named him Cleophia welcomed him into the world 66 years and 6 months earlier.

It was in the country near Talladega that he learned to speak in an accent and at a speed that sometimes confused his children and where the soft and hard sides of him took root.

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“The country stays in us,” said Nate Anthony, himself from Alabama, who was a pallbearer at the funeral at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, and a man who was at Striver’s Club on many a late afternoon when Guyton, just then getting of work would stop by for two shots of E&J brandy with a tall glass of ice water.

Guyton’s days usually started at 5 a.m. with a fire in the back yard, his little slice of country in the back of his 530 W. Liberty St. home. After a few minutes at the fire, he’d be off to the convenience store at the Marathon station at the corner of Yellow Springs and Pleasant streets for coffee and some razzing of the guys behind the counter there.

By 7 a.m., he then was ready for work, something he also expected from the guys working for Cleo Guyton Construction.

“If you didn’t want to do it and didn’t want to be there, you had to go,” said Victor Bishop, who began learning the concrete trade from his father-in-law in 1997.

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Adam Blake, an honorary pallbearer, started with the company before that, when Cleo was working half days pouring concrete while still on the night shift at Hobart Co. in Troy. (He’d also been a molder at Teledyne OhioCast.)

Guyton also worked a second job for concrete contractor Albert Jones in the early 1980s, when stints of work alternated too often with layoffs for Guyton. At that time, he and wife Pearlie Wells Perkins Guyton were growing a family of what would become six children.

Pearlie had come north from Talladega when she was 17 and her husband was 18. It was for the same reason as her brother, whom the the two of them stayed with for a year upon their arrival: There were jobs to be had in Springfield – better jobs than in Talladega.

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Whether historians would include the Guytons’ arrival in the late 1960s as part of the Great Migration, it surely was for the two of them.

Blake recalled that Guyton started the business “with a little red pickup truck, a sledge hammer and some simple concrete tools.”

As Pearlie Guyton tells it, some of those tools – and the money to buy licenses – came from the $1,000 she won at bingo.

“He always did the work and I always cooked … we worked together,” she said.

Blake occasionally had trouble doing that with her husband.

“There was a time when he was a real hard man to get along with,” Blake said. “Some days, I just wanted to take that sledge hammer and walk up behind him.”

Blake said the conflicts weren’t personal in the end.

“They were always about getting the job done. And he expected you to carry yourself in a right way out there.”

But he knew Guyton’s softer side, too.

“Even when I wasn’t working for him, he made it a point to call me and bug me on the phone,” Blake said.

The “bugging” involved the same kind of friendly harassment that endeared him to so many people.

Elwood “Woody” Berrien, knew Cleo Guyton as an “easy going person,” a family man, somebody who always hollered out the window of his pickup truck as he went by, and a guy caring and clever enough that, no matter how bad a day you were having, “he’d find a way to make you forget about it for a minute.”

Moments after Guyton had run into Berrien on a day Berrien was struggling with laryngitis, Berrien’s phone rang, he answered it and listened to a smiling Guyton say: “I knew you could talk.”

“If you knew him,” Berrien, “you had to like him. He was really more like a brother to me than a friend.”

Jim Griffeth of the Striver’s Club said Guyton knew a lot of people because “he would mess with everybody.”

While riding with him to check his work sites, Guyton’s children learned that one thing they did not mess with was the finishing touch of a concrete project. The last thing to touch the surface of the drying cement was a broom, not one of his children’s handprints or initials.

When one sister scratched her name on a block around the corner from the Guyton home some years ago, their father had a fit, a rare instance in which he treated the girls in the family more harshly than the boys, who early on were expected to pull own their weight.

Old-school in that way, one of his often repeated sayings was: “I’m not taking care of a man.”

His fellow Alabamian Anthony said that didn’t mean he wouldn’t loan money to someone in straits or talk to someone who was headed the wrong way.

Anthony, who called his friend a “gentle giant,” knew of instances when he took work on promises of payment or donated work to help someone or a good cause.

Pastor Ernest Brown of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, called him “a very giving person. When I tried to get a bill from him” for church work “he wouldn’t even send me one.”

He knew of other people Guyton “blessed” in the same way.

For years Guyton hired many family members for the company as a way of making sure they were financially solvent. But since the death of his friend and competitor Itan Bass three years ago, he had been talking about retiring and urged people who work for him to look for other jobs.

His purpose was the same: To make sure they were on their own feet when he was gone.

The day of he died, Guyton had his mind on something else that, though always important to him, had been growing more important: Both the Springfield and Talladega branches of his family.

In part because of the Talladega relatives’ kindness to the Guytons when Cleo and Pearlie’s daughter Patricia Ann Perkins died Dec. 25, the Springfield Guytons planned a Fourth of July trip to Talladega as a way to return the kindness.

The trip also was to give them all a chance to remember the days when the Guyton children were young and the family made the trip south more often.

As always, the 5 a.m. departure in a rented 15-passenger van depended on Cleo Guyton’s work schedule. But it did come off, and not only did he eat well and drive comfortably that day, after filling up the gas tank at a stop, he send the grandchildren back in to the station’s convenience store to get what they wanted. Whether that was repayment for their shaving him in his chair, as they always did, isn’t clear.

When daughter Heather found him slumped over about 10:30 that night, she didn’t worry, because he often fell asleep like that. After all, concrete work is a young man’s job.

When she found him unresponsive, she gave him CPR, but he didn’t respond.

That Cleo Guyton worked until nearly his last day didn’t surprise anyone who knew him any more than it surprised them to see Guyton in blue Dickey work clothes and brown Dickey boots on the job and dress pants and shirts on all other occasions.

His burial plot in Ferncliff, just across the fence from Plum Street seems a natural, too. It’s within earshot of the place where Ernest and other cement trucks have to gear up to make the steep grade on their way to another concrete job for Cleo Guyton Concrete, which his family will try to carry on behalf of the sometimes hard man who could always find a way to make anyone smile.