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Sonny Allen, former mayor of Salisbury, dies at age 90

By Maggie Blackwell
For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — The ready smile, the perpetual twinkle in his eye and the heart that seemed bigger than his 130-pound frame could hold. Sonny Allen was all these and more.

Elmer “Sonny” Allen died Monday at age 90, on the 69th anniversary of his wedding to the late Janie Allen. Those who know him imagined a joyous reunion of the couple after his passing. His three children and five grandchildren adored the man.

Everyone who knew Sonny knew his breezy demeanor. Just seeing him for a moment left one with a spring in the step, a smile. When walking downtown — he was always walking downtown — he invariably greeted friends with, “Gosh, I’m happy to see you!” He made each person feel that she, and only she, was just the person he was hoping to see that day. Then upon parting, or ending a phone call, he signed off with, “So long.” Never “goodbye.”

Salisbury City Clerk Kelly Baker recalls just this trait in her memory of him: “Mr. Allen was always such a joy to be around.”

“He was gentle and unfailingly kind with a wicked sense of humor that could bring me to tears,” Baker said. “He had the gift of making anyone he spoke with feel like they were the most important person in the world. And at the moment they were, because he genuinely cared. When I think of Mr. Allen, the first thing that comes to mind is the greeting he always used  — “Hey there! Boy, am I glad to see you” — and he would always add “You’re looking great,” to which I responded ‘You’re looking better.’ And we’d start our compliment round all over again.”

Even though Sonny’s outer demeanor was lighthearted, he took some things very seriously.

Sonny took family seriously.

Sonny married the love of his life, Janie, in 1952, soon after their graduation from Catawba College. In the prime of life, they worked together at his mortgage company and they both served as officers in the state organization. He was immensely proud of her art and loved to brag on her. His care for her in her later years is legendary. Janie died in January 2020.

His children, Chip, Laura and Lee, all remember a happy childhood growing up on McCoy Road among close neighbors in Milford Hills. Sonny and Janie later loved having the grandchildren visit them at their apartment in the Plaza, where they spent their later years. They remember Sonny always saying he was the luckiest man in the world to be married to Janie. They also remember him saying, “Janie, do you need anything else before I sit down?”

Sonny took aging seriously.

Sonny was born in Clemmons in 1931, an only child, and grew up in the midst of the Great Depression. At age 82, he wrote a book loosely based on his childhood. “The Paper Boy” is a collection of 50 individual stories, each story a comical retelling of experiences he had as a boy. Some stories were pure fancy; some were true down to the characters in the small-town church in Clemmons. Sonny published the book in 2013 after painstakingly typing each story individually late at night. He saved the printed stories in a pile until he had enough to make a book. His reception at South Main Book Store was packed to overflowing; Sonny perched on a wooden stool and recounted the stories from his youth to an adoring audience.

In his late ’70s, Sonny noticed the brick wall at the Lutheran cemetery was failing. Saying, “I needed something to do with the time on my hands,” he visited Chandler Concrete to learn how to point up brick. The city granted him permission to work on the wall. Armed with mortar matched by Chandler, Sonny visited the wall every weekday for over a year, carrying two 5-gallon buckets, one filled with mortar and one to sit on.

Sonny took work seriously.

After graduating from Catawba College in 1953, Sonny worked at Security Bank and at Trust Citizens Saving, where he served as president. He was an active Jaycee and was a faithful member of St. John’s Lutheran Church, where he served on countless committees. He was a charter member of the Catawba Chiefs and served numerous times on Catawba presidential search committees. He served as director of the N.C. League of Savings Institutions and the N.C. Association of Mortgage Bankers and served as vice president of the N.C. Mortgage Investment Corporation. He was on the Salisbury school board, served as president of Downtown Salisbury Inc. and was selected as Citizen of the Year for both the city and the county. He served on the boards for the American Red Cross, Hospice of Rowan, Cerebral Palsy of N.C. and Habitat for Humanity. He was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine by the governor in 1980. He served as Salisbury mayor from 1972 through 73.

From 1990 to 2008, Sonny and Janie owned Allen Mortgage Company, with offices in Salisbury, Davidson and Matthews. In the beginning, all three children worked at the company. Daughter Laura Allen Sumner recalls, “I worked with him for years and every day as we all left, he thanked us — who does that?!”

As a mortgagor, Sonny was delighted to help people buy homes. He took great pride in helping others become first-time homeowners. He advertised the mortgage company on local radio stations with his own voice, telling funny stories to brighten everyone’s day.

Sonny ran for Salisbury City Council in 1971 and was surprised when he garnered the most votes and became mayor overnight. He worked with then-City Manager Francis Luther, who had quite a reputation for frugality. Sonny put it another way: “He was tighter than Dick’s hatband.” Sonny laughed as he recalled a time when council wanted a new fire truck and Luther replied, “We’ll just paint the old one.” Sonny served only one term, saying that serving cut into his family time too badly.

Sonny took friendship seriously.

To be a friend of Sonny was to have a friend for life. He took interest in whatever his friends had going on and made time for them from his busy life. He and Janie famously hosted gatherings at their expansive McCoy Road home and are remembered by all as gracious, hospitable people.

John Robinson, also a former Salisbury City Council member, says, “There are so, so many stories. Sonny and I go back a long, long time. One of the dearest friends I ever had.”

Shortly after Sonny was elected as mayor, he was invited to attend a meeting on the east side, Robinson recalled. As soon as he sat down, he was introduced as the speaker. Sonny didn’t blink an eye, rose and gave a good speech. After that day, Sonny kept notes in his pocket so he’d never be surprised again.

“He was a wonderful, down to earth person,” Robinson says. “I never met somebody who was so friendly and jovial. He would greet you with, ‘I’m so glad to see you.’ That was just him.”

Perry Hood worked with Sonny at Citizen Savings in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

“I worked for Mr. Paul Reynolds upstairs as an appraiser at Reynolds Real Estate. Sonny was downstairs as president of Citizens. Business was really good in late ’70s, early ’80s, then it fell, and Mr. Reynolds had to let me go,” Hood recalled. “I went downstairs and asked Sonny if he knew of any openings in town. He looked at me for a few minutes, then told me, ‘Perry, why don’t you go down to Salisbury Motor and pick out a company car. You can come back here and work for me.’ In the span of 20 minutes, I lost a job and got another.”

Diane Goodnight and her husband, the late Frank Goodnight, were neighbors of the Allens for a total of 35 years, first on McCoy Road, then at the Plaza. She recalled Sonny was always painting his house. Frank worried about him on the tall ladder. Sometimes he’d say, “I know how to get him down.” He’d crack open a beer and walk next door. Sonny invariably joined him for a cool one, leaving the ladder behind. The two couples enjoyed beach trips together as well as long walks around the neighborhood.

She specifically remembers Sonny’s big heart for others. When they lived at the Plaza, Sonny worried about a homeless man who stayed in Magnolia Park beside the county administration building. He learned he was a veteran and worked with the veteran’s home to accept him, but the gentleman declined. Sonny began leaving things for him at the little park — food, water and warm clothing.

“Sonny had a unique way of making you feel that you were his best friend. He always looked you in the eye when you were speaking with him and he really did listen. How unique is that,” Goodnight recalled. “It would be difficult not to see how much he loved animals, particularly dogs. The Allen family had multiple dachshunds over time. When Sonny sat to rest, he always had a dog in his lap to love. That love of dogs has carried over to the children, all of whom have at least one dog for a pet.”

Memories from his children.

Each of his three children has a special memory of their dad. Laura says, “Dad inspired all of our career choices. Chip and I have both been in the mortgage industry for 30 years. Lee opened his own business after seeing the success dad had in running his own business.”

Chip recalls, “After Hurricane Hugo when I was a senior at Davidson College, I brought two carloads of kids to Salisbury, hoping mom and dad would have power. We didn’t have power, but dad got out a second grill and cooked everything we had, to feed all of those Davidson kids for a weekend.”

Son Lee recalls making the tools for Sonny to scrape away the old mortar at the Lutheran Cemetery.

Laura remembers seeing her dad hold her first child Haley — the first grandchild — for the first time.

“I’ll never forget the love and joy in his eyes,” she said.

Sonny kept spunk in his eyes until he passed away.

“The day after we had a final rites service, he rallied. He hugged us, we had the pastor pray with him and when the nurses weren’t watching, he got up from the bed and sat in the chair,” Laura said. “When she told him he shouldn’t get up, he smiled and said, ‘Well, I just did!’”

Many, many in the community will miss Sonny Allen. So long, dear friend.

Sonny’s memorial service will be Thursday, June 17, at 3 p.m. at St. John’s Lutheran Church, with a reception following in Peeler Hall immediately afterward.

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