Sumter streets renamed to honor hometown war dead

bmarchant@theitem.comMay 25, 2013 

If you drive around Sumter long enough, you'll pass at least one of them: Street signs at intersections across town that include names like Vivian and Adams, Dorn and Dabbs, Lauderdale and Seay. Most people will turn the corner without thinking about what they mean or who these people were.

But it's not an accident those names were chosen for those streets. They're part of an official, longstanding and ongoing attempt to make sure every Sumter resident who died fighting America's wars is commemorated with a street named in his honor.

The effort got started in the years after World War II, when Sumter City Council passed an ordinance calling for a street to be named after every one of the 142 men from Sumter who died in the previous conflict. Sixty years later, members of the community are still trying to ensure every one of those names, and those of fallen service members from subsequent conflicts, receives his or her street sign.

The effort was revived in 2004, when Sammy Way tried to incorporate the streets into a project for his history class at Sumter High School. Way's class tried to match the names on a plaque in the school's main hallway listing the 41 graduates of Edmunds High School who died in the war with streets around town.

"But when we went searching for the streets, a lot of them weren't there," said Way, who works today as the Item's archivist.

So Way decided to help complete the work started by the city more than 50 years earlier but never finished.

"It became a project for my hands-on history class," he said, "to make sure we could get streets for those who lost their lives."

He turned to Talmadge Tobias for help, bringing him a list of 26 fallen service members' names, stretching from the Second World War to the war in Iraq. A former Sumter city manager, Tobias could help the project less because of his municipal connections than because of his new job as a real estate agent with Summit Realty and Development.

"I retired from the city in 2005, and that August I went to work with Doc (Dunlap, Summit real estate developer)," Tobias recalls. "Then in 2006, Sammy calls and says 'Can you help me?'"

Along with Dunlap, Tobias set out to fill the new subdivisions being built around town with the names of Sumter's war dead.

The names seemed appropriate for neighborhoods such as Patriot Landing, Ashbrook and Bambury, where many homes were bought by airmen and recently soldiers stationed at Shaw Air Force Base.

"We budgeted for the street signs, so we could get a little fancier signs," Tobias said.

The city did, however, make some progress in the years after the ordinance was originally passed. When the area around Phelps Street between Alice Drive and Second Mill Pond was developed in the 1950s, many of the streets were named after casualties from the recent conflict, including Phelps itself.

Lt. Perry Moses Phelps died in a vehicle accident in North Africa, where his Naval Reserve unit was deployed in 1943. Turn the corner from Phelps Street and you'll hit Adams Avenue, named for Lt. Lafayette Bagnal Adams, who was wounded in action three times fighting with an infantry unit in North Africa and Italy, and was killed only four days after returning to the front from his last injury.

Sgt. Lloyd Arnold also died fighting in Italy. Today, Arnold Avenue turns onto Lenoir Street, which could be named for any of three related men, David, John and William Lenoir, who all lost their lives in World War II.

Nearby, Vivian Road has the distinction of bearing the first name of Marine Capt. Vivian Moses, a Corsair pilot shot down one month after deploying to the Korean War. The name distinguishes him from his twin brother Herbert, who survived him.

Since the green-colored Department of Transportation signs bearing those men's names have gone up, the signs placed in the area's subdivisions are more decorative, featuring a dark, wrought-iron design with gold lettering. When the Ashbrook subdivision went up off McCrays Mill Road, the streets were named in honor of men such as Adger Stokes Matthews, whose plane was shot down in a bombing run over Germany, and Ralph Herman McCathern, who was the radio operator on a blimp that crashed during World War II.

"We have a ceremony for them," Tobias said. "The American Legion is there, members of the family, students from the class, local politicians and officials. It's a nice gesture."

Some names remain outstanding, primarily because they sound too similar to existing street names or might cause confusion for emergency dispatchers, who have to approve new street names.

Robert Lee McCormick, who died in World War II, couldn't receive his own street because there is already a McCormick Drive in Sumter. Luther M. Ange, who lost his life in Korea, had his name declined because it sounded too much like Range Road, and could cause a problem for dispatchers. For similar reasons, the name of Vietnam War casualty Helmut Gustav Lakaxzus proved too hard to pronounce.

But those checking off the list of names will continue trying to honor as many service members as they can and raise public awareness of the streets already named.

"When people drive on Mooneyham Road, they don't realize that was named for John Mooneyham. When they park on Sam Smith Street for events at the (Sumter County) Civic Center, they don't realize who Sam Smith was," Way said. "If the highway department would let me, I'd like to have a marker on each of these signs saying 'This road is named in memory of ... who gave the full measure of his existence for his country.'"

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