Experience the greatness of our community

I had barely heard of James Melton before I did an article about the man from Citra a few months back. Thanks to a remarkable voice, Melton rose from his humble Marion County roots to enjoy a star-studded career in in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. He was once ranked the No. 1 vocalist in America by a survey of radio critics. And he has not one, but two stars on the Hollywood Walk for Fame.

Melton is arguably the greatest entertainer to come out of Marion County. Ever. Yet, who has heard of the man? A few old-timers. That’s it … despite a career on stage, screen and sold-out concert halls that ranged from the Ziegfeld Follies to MGM to the Metropolitan Opera. The man was a star.

Yet, in his own hometown there is no indication Melton grew up here. No plaque. No music hall bearing his name. No street named in his honor. Nothing. It’s as if he never lived here.

I wonder how a local boy who did so well could be so overlooked at home. Does Ocala not recognize its great achievers? Do we not celebrate our best? What gives?

The answer came last month when I was invited to a couple of galas that indeed celebrated some of our best, some of our highest achievers.

The first event was Interfaith’s annual Legacies of Love, held each year on Valentine’s Day. The organization that serves Ocala’s hungry and homeless honored Wes Wheeler, Monica Bryant and, posthumously, Wayne McDonald. Wheeler, known for sending birthday cards every year to more than 1,000 of his friends, is a mainstay – front and center — of numerous civic clubs and charities. Bryant is a tireless advocate for and protector of victims of domestic violence in Marion County. McDonald was involved in a long list of local causes and charities and was known for his generosity to the downtrodden.

Hearing their stories was a reminder that common people do uncommon things when they see an important need and do something about it.

It was an amazing event that made us stop and applaud those who make Ocala a better place.

A couple weeks later the Howard Academy Community Center hosted its annual Black History Museum Archives Gala, honoring nine local residents who have improved our community by “advocating for social change and equality.” Honored were the Rev. Eric Cummings, Edwin Farmer, Dennis McFatten, Adjahnae Piner, Winsome Jacobs, Scott Hackmyer, Judge LeAnn Mackey Barnes, Lena Hopkins and Katrina Colston. Each one was hailed not just for the work they had done but the untold lives they had touched and, in many cases, changed. Take Farmer, the head football coach at Vanguard High. His 2023 team sent 21 players to college on scholarship. That kind of winning success does not happen without a winning culture and mentorship from the top.

Again, I knew many of the Howard Academy honorees, and it was heart-warning and soul-lifting to hear their stories and how they each make Ocala a better place to live. I like how the Rev. Mikel James described the evening as “an opportunity to experience the greatness of our community.” Amen, Reverend.

Sometimes we forget to recognize the greatness of our hometown achievers. But sometimes, we do pause to hail those who uplift our community with good deeds and great passion.

I applaud the Legacies of Love honorees and the Howard Academy Black Museum inductees. They are all stars. We should all take a moment and applaud them. In fact, we should celebrate them every chance we get, because without people like them and the greatness they bring to every corner of Ocala, this would be an entirely different place – one not nearly as rich in human spirit and deed.

Brad Rogers, OM Editor
Brad Rogers, OM Editor
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