10/04/12 — 86, and he's still behind New Hope Church counter

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86, and he's still behind New Hope Church counter

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on October 4, 2012 1:46 PM

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A charter member of the church, Harold Coltrane, foreground, has been running the New Hope United Methodist Church fair booth for 40 years. He is pictured with several other church volunteers.

DUDLEY -- You won't find Harold Coltrane behind the grill at the New Hope United Methodist Church fair booth anymore, but he can still tell you just how to make his favorite sandwich.

Stirring the egg and throwing it on the grill while the ham sizzles. The melted cheese. The golden toast.

It's been years now since he's had to mind the kitchen -- a testament to the willingness of church members to help out at the booth New Hope has maintained for decades.

But the booth itself -- that's a testament to Coltrane.

Sitting in the rear of the booth, the 86-year-old remembers a time far before the midway was paved and the booths were taken over by volunteer fire departments and churches, to when each grill was maintained by members of the county's Granges.

The New Hope Grange had been renting its booth to the church for about $1,000 a year when Coltrane, his father-in-law, Ben Boyette, and Frasier Williams began kicking around the idea of buying the booth outright from the Grange in the early 1970s.

They talked with Eula Whitley, the president of the Grange and register of deeds at the time, and the transaction gave ownership of the booth to the church.

But the savings from annual rental fees meant maintaining the booth was a year-round job -- and that's where Coltrane came in.

"I've done everything," he says.

From taking orders to dropping fries to handling food inventory, which he still heads up today, Coltrane has been overseeing the booth each year essentially since it was first purchased back in 1972.

He doesn't talk a lot about how vital a role he has played in the booth's 40 years, but instead runs through a mental list of everyone who has helped at the grill, like a kid running through a roster of his favorite baseball team.

He follows America's pastime passionately and said he used to make annual trips down to Florida for spring training.

He recalls one time when he was at Baseball City Stadium in Davenport, Fla., at a Kansas City Royals preseason game when he saw a familiar face behind a concession stand -- one that hawks funnel cakes just feet from the New Hope grill.

After decades of dedication, it's just one example of how those friendships and connections made during the fair have followed him throughout his life.

Coltrane doesn't move around like he used to -- a portable oxygen tank limits him a bit -- but he's every bit as sharp as those around him.

"He knows this booth inside and out," said Steve Miller, who Coltrane said he's unofficially passing the booth off to.

Wondering when the booth was expanded, he asks John McNeill, who helped him with the project.

McNeill can't remember, so Coltrane directs him outside to the walkway where his initials and Coltrane's are crudely carved into the cement above a date: Aug. 19, 1991.

It's more knowledge that's second nature to Coltrane -- like knowing how many fries to drop, when to pull the bacon off the grill -- but for Miller, it's valuable information to soak up.

"There's a lot of notetaking," he says out of earshot of Coltrane, who is talking up customers who have been coming to see him for decades.

They'll be back next year and so will Coltrane.