Beaufort News

A gentleman and an icon: Longtime Beaufort grocer James W. Pruitt dies at 83

Scherra Campbell, a longtime patron of Pruitt's Grocery, pauses to look at the front door of the small grocery on Greene Street in Beaufort on Sept. 10, 2015.  James Pruitt, recently retired owner of of the shop, died Sept. 9, at the age of 83.  "I decided to drive by the store after I got off work to pay my respects to Mr. Pruitt," Campbell said.
Scherra Campbell, a longtime patron of Pruitt's Grocery, pauses to look at the front door of the small grocery on Greene Street in Beaufort on Sept. 10, 2015. James Pruitt, recently retired owner of of the shop, died Sept. 9, at the age of 83. "I decided to drive by the store after I got off work to pay my respects to Mr. Pruitt," Campbell said. dearley@islandpacket.com

During the final days of his life, James W. Pruitt liked to sit at the dining room table in the morning watching the lake and birds and deer visit the backyard of the home he lived in on Cat Island.

He watched sports on television, worked on jigsaw puzzles and dropped everything to visit with his "adopted" great-grandchildren.

Pruitt died Wednesday at age 83 after serving generations of Beaufortonians with his downtown corner grocery stores.

His final weeks were filled with love from his caretakers, John and Betty Barton, and their family.

The Bartons invited Pruitt into their home after a series of heart surgeries almost killed him in 1999.

"He ended up staying, and it was good for all of us," John Barton said Thursday.

Instead of quitting the store after the surgeries, Pruitt returned to work.

He manned Pruitt's Grocery on Greene Street until June, when he closed the doors on an institution that had been in his family 95 years, the last true corner store downtown.

He started in the grocery business in 1953 with his store on Ribaut Road, where the Beaufort County Government Complex is now, and moved into his family's store when the old building was torn down to build the new complex.

The store had last been run by his brother, Ed, who died of a heart attack.

Pruitt had hoped to stay open five more years on Greene Street to see the store reach the 100-year mark, but had difficulty getting around the U-shaped counters.

"I like to come out here and talk to the people and all," he said in May just before his store closed. "The trouble is my walking's getting bad, and my balance is getting bad, so I think it's the best thing for me to do. Get on out."

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Pruitt was diagnosed with oral cancer in July after complaining of a sore in his mouth, John Barton said. He was under home hospice care in the final weeks of his life.

A visitation for friends will be from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at Anderson Funeral Home and Crematory .

The funeral is at 11 a.m. Monday at the Parish Church of St. Helena.

Pruitt will be buried in the church's cemetery, Betty Barton said.

St. Helena's had been Pruitt's church since he was a boy. He continued to attend services there after his diagnosis.

John would drop him off at the door and pick him up after the service. A member of the church's clergy visited him in the Barton the home the night before he died.

'PART OF A FAMILY'

In the store's final days, people poured in from throughout the neighborhood to crowd the small space and order penny candy and lunch meat.

Pruitt's normal meat shipments would sell out in two weeks, John Barton said.

The final order lasted two days before it was gobbled up by the end of May.

A note tacked to the door of Pruitt's Grocery on Thursday listed his funeral arrangements.

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The Bartons and city leaders hope the historic building can be preserved to recognize its longtime use.

Plans for the store's future were shelved when Pruitt was diagnosed, but there was talk of the viability of a similar store.

"It would be great to get a group of people to put together a small investment and help a young person start," Mayor Billy Keyserling said Thursday. "I would love to see it remain open."

Keyserling remembered Pruitt as a gentleman who was an icon in two neighborhoods.

At the store on Ribaut Road, children would bring Pruitt their soda bottles to sell for candy.

He allowed customers to leave with groceries on credit until their checks came in and sold cigarettes a few at a time.

"He makes you feel like you're a part of a family," longtime customer Stanley Gibbs Sr. said when the store prepared to close in May. "He doesn't care about the money; he just cares about satisfying the customer."

Pruitt cared about people, John said, even the ones robbed him. He was robbed four times, most recently in 2013.

He once required stitches after someone hit him with a large canned good at the Ribaut Road store.

In recent years, signs were posted around Greene Street asking residents to look out for the historic store and its owner.

Joe Mack, Pruitt's friend and neighbor of the store, would look out for the building, help Pruitt close up at night and let the Bartons know when Pruitt came and went.

All his immediate family was gone. He had some distant relatives living on the West Coast, John Barton said.

But Pruitt was part of the Bartons' family,

When the Bartons' great-grandchildren visited, about once a week, Pruitt would emerge from his room and jigsaw puzzle and give them his full attention.

"It was just something he looked forward to every week," Betty Barton said.

In June, when Pruitt was to be recognized by Beaufort City Council for the decades he served downtown, he prepared to wear his standard khakis.

"I don't have to dress up, do I?" he asked Betty Barton.

Even after 16 years, Pruitt addressed her as "Mrs. Barton" and said "yes, ma'am; no, ma'am."

Betty told him the recognition was important and suggested he wear his church clothes.

So Pruitt dressed up.

"He looked so sharp that night," she said.

When the resolution was read, he received a standing ovation.

Follow reporter Stephen Fastenau at twitter.com/IPBG_Stephen.

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