A Special Tribute to my inspirational Father who taught me everything I know about colors and textures.
Happy Belated Father’s Day Daddy, I miss you each and every day!
When I moved to Charleston from our family home of York, SC, I discovered the many eccentricities of the Holy City. Naturally, the favorite of “born here” Charlestonians is to ask “where are you from?”. When I answered I was from the small pre-Revolutionary textile town of York, their response usually was……OH, you’re a “lint head”. This phrase was given to those who worked in the textile or garment industry of the upcountry. And yes, my father was a cotton manufacturer .
John Kuykandall Benfield Jr. graduated from Clemson University in December of 1941 on a scholarship. Almost the moment he finished his four year study of textile chemistry, he was off to war in the Far East. He joined a special military group called the Merrill’s Marauders. Their secret mission was to go behind the China Burma lines. Captain Benfield and his men went through horrors that could not be depicted in the movies. However, there were several books written about this special military group; over 3000 men started the battle, a few hundred completed it. The suicide mission was finally over in 1945.
When “Jack” returned from this war, he was battle scarred, but ready to put life in America to full advantage in the post war boom. Using his degree from Clemson, and his 6’2″ Southern Charm, he landed a desired position with a textile company on Wheat Sheaf Lane in Philadelphia, PA that made Narrow Fabrics – items under 12″ that could be made on a broad loom. He was hooked into his new life of textiles.
When my father took the Southern Cresent train from Philadelphia to Rock Hill, SC, he noted a slogan painted on the side of the trains that said “Look Ahead…Look South”. This changed his entire life. Post war had not been good to the rural deep South, and I mean the Civil War. Even though it had not been physically destroyed by Sherman’s armies, the economy was non exisitent. Poor farmers and small businesses and a few, small textile mills were barely making it. He returned to Philadelphia and the owner of the mills showed him how he could create a new and successful market in the South. It worked, and the journey began… Soon my Father convinced his now business partner to move all manufacturing to the South. That’s when I showed up on the scene – his youngest child, and the one that would be at his side enjoying this fascinating world of fabric, manufacturing color and process of creation.
When I was about 6, my father was at his desk in a very depressed mood. I asked several times what was the matter and he could not answer me. Finally he caught a moment and patiently explained that “there are 110 shades of white that we sell, and we just made two million yards of the wrong shade of white!”. It was at that moment that my lesson in color began. I would grab a bottle of coke and walk the 200,000 sf building watching each machine and its process – the shuttles and the looms, the bales of raw cotton, the dye rooms for color mixing, the twisting of the cotton, and especially how that massive 40′ loom could make this wonderful weave and trim. He knew that I was the successor of the mills and his creation.
My father eventually bought the business and spread the company out to three mills in New York, Phildelphia and the large manufacturing plant in York. He expanded into a new world of elastic in the late 60’s and captured the exclusive contract of making the elastic banding for BVD and Hanes hosiery. This had to be made in three special looms, that made a young man’s eye glue to the needles and looms working in unison. Then they landed the contract to make all the seat belts for GM and their many divisions of the time. Though it was a lucrative project, the color palette he had to work with made for additional stress and color management. For the first time I discovered “light and dark” of colors…the weave, the shading, the blend of how the material was woven to get the correct final finish.
I believe it was the GM contracts that kept me up late at night when my father was hammering out some issue in his front office. Metallic material was brought in to embellish some of the high-end series cars. To walk out and see the tens of thousands of yards of electric blue nylon and high sheen silver metallic material being made into seat trim was magic.
Speaking of cars, my father disliked any car that did not serve some function. He only bought Pontiac wagons from Paul’s Pontiac in Chester, SC. He never even looked at them; he just ordered it over the phone . Blue, blue interior, no options but for air and am radio. Now working for him in (non air conditioned) mills, I saw my father a great deal more. He told me at lunch one day he had just ordered a new wagon and with my exposures to colors and weaves, I begged him to select the “color on loom 114 and the trim over in the broadloom department”! This was not going to happen with him. However, I called from the company phone and requested to speak to the sales manager to make an adjustment of “dark green metallic and the tan interior…..also put leather, stereo and power windows…toss in white walls and sports wheel covers”. They agreed, and it was ordered.
I actually do not recall exactly what happened when he came home in the car, but it was not pleasant. It took him several days to finally say that he “loved” the radio and ALL those speakers…and the electric windows (fancy in 1973) were his favorite. My life was spared over color and change..and patience.
In 1975 , my father asked me would I consider being groomed for taking over the mills that he had created. I recall my response was that the manufacturing process was fascinating and the color and texture were my passion, but the mills themselves were too much to handle in my life . In 1976, I was called back from overseas travel to find out that my father had pancreatic cancer and we had him for a short six months after the diagnosis.
On this Fathers day, I still recall his soft and gentle voice, taking my small hands to explain feel, finish, color and especially that there really are “110 shades of white”.