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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
Fax: 540-483-8013

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50 years on the job
Cundiff is still going strong leading RMA
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Photo by Charles Boothe: Dorothy Cundiff has been at the helm of the Franklin County Retail Merchants Association for 50 years and has no plans to retire.

Friday, July 5, 2013

By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer

Dorothy Ramsey Cundiff finished her last day of work at noon in Roanoke on that hot June day many years ago, and one hour later, she started her new job in Rocky Mount.

"I was working there (Propst Childress in Roanoke as credit manager) when Rudolph Haywood called and asked me if I would be interested in coming back to Rocky Mount since the lady in the RMA (Retail Merchants Association) office had left and it was empty," Cundiff said. "I came by and talked to him and decided that I would since my children were getting bigger and calling me long distance right often to ask questions."

"On June 10, 1963, after working a two-week notice, I worked at Propst until noon, told everyone goodbye, and came to Rocky Mount and opened the office at 1 p.m. I have been here ever since."

For 50 years, Cundiff has been the face of the RMA, and its backbone as well, surviving difficult times and taking advantage of the good times.

"When I came here, there were only 50 members and all in Rocky Mount," she said. "There was also a small credit bureau."

The RMA was so small it was difficult to pay the county $20 a month in rent for the space above what is now The Daily Grind on Main Street.

"I knew we had to have more members so I rode all over the town and county, and by the end of 1963, we had 125 members," she said.

Not only did the membership pick up, Cundiff also jumped through all of the hoops to establish an accredited and incorporated credit bureau, becoming part of a national network.

It wasn't long before the RMA had 230 members and continued to grow. In 1978, the organization finally moved into a building of its own (the Dr. James Colley building) across from Flowers by Jones on Floyd Avenue.

"In 1979, we signed on with Blue Cross and Blue Shield for group health insurance benefits for our members, and our membership began to really grow," she said. "Our best years were in the 1970s and 80s, as we had a fully functioning credit bureau and our membership climbed to over 600."

Cundiff's office is now located beside the Rocky Mount Post Office and she keeps doing many of the things she started years ago.

The well-known trademark events she started with the RMA include the recently held Fun Festival and auction. Both were started in 1980 "with encouragement from Kelly Smithers, Bobby Cundiff and Jewel Hunt." She also continues to spearhead the annual Christmas parade in Rocky Mount with the help of Harold Ingram, Alan Jones and others.

Cundiff was also behind what is now Rocky Mount's Citizens Square and Farmers' Market.

"We started the farmers' market (in 1996) on land leased (on Franklin Street) at no cost from Willie Mills," she said. "Patrick Arrington graded the lot and several donated loads of gravel. After Mark Henne came on as town manager, the town bought the land and built the current shelter."

Cundiff is quick to point out that she had help from many people along the way.

"Over the years, we had a number of people who were of tremendous help -- Mary Williams, Bonnie Walker, Norma Pagans, Joan Thurman, Olivia Quinn and others," she said. "Dawn Self came in 1968 and became my right hand. She left due to illness in 2011, but still helps when she can."

"One of the things that people forget, but I am proud of, is that we saved other organizations," Cundiff said, adding that the RMA gave them a home when times were hard.

Those organizations include the Red Cross office in 1978, the United Way from 1980 to 1996, and the Franklin County Historical Society from 2000 to 2006.

"All organizations are making it now on their own," she said. "We tried to save the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce (which closed in 2010), but they were not interested in allowing this. We invited them into our office and told their president we would help them get back on their feet."

Besides her work at the RMA, Cundiff is well-known for her knowledge of the area's history, and that interest, as well as her work ethic and generosity, may be traced back to her roots in Penhook.

"For 11 years (of my youth), we lived with my grandmother (the late Angie Stone) near the village blacksmith shop," she said. "Penhook had three stores and a filling station at that time."

"I was blessed to be raised by a grandmother who stood for her beliefs and made no bones about it," she said. "My dad (the late A.D. Ramsey) was a teacher every minute of every day. My mother (the late Betty Ramsey) was the backbone of our existence, as she was always there to pick us up and set us back on the right road."

Cundiff's mother was a dietitian and would not allow the children to have much candy or sweets.

"Of course, we had no money to buy these things and they were not readily available, so we didn't miss them," she said.

Making ends meet was difficult, she said, and her father, who, when he was principal at Redwood Elementary School, made $700 a month, money which did not come easily.

"He had to rise early to get to school and be sure that all the rooms' fires were started, and in the late evening the floors had to be oiled."

And the money he made as principal was not enough to raise her and her four younger siblings, David (a retired rear admiral), Jimmy (retired computer installer), Peggy (retired postmaster) and Elizabeth (a troubleshooter for an insurance company).

"For three months (when school was out) he worked other jobs to feed us," she said. "He measured tobacco and other crops for the government, and he worked two summers in Norfolk on the radio, giving commodity prices, also for the government."

Ramsey was later principal at Glade Hill High School, from which Cundiff graduated.

"I am still very proud of that school," she said. "Dad was principal there from 1937 through 1949."

Her father was also a lover of history.

"He was a born teacher and he loved history, and he and I spent a lot of our time looking for graveyards and old houses," she said. "He wrote several books on the Clements-Witcher fight, the F&P Railroad and other events. He asked no quarter and gave none."

Her family was, as many families were in those days, very independent, she said.

"Mom loved cooking and gardening so we always had a large garden and she and grandma canned a lot," Cundiff said. "When my grandmother died in 1951, there were cans of food in the (dug out) basement that had been canned before I was born. They were all still good. We raised hogs and milked a cow or two, so we were independent. Everyone in the village looked out for each other, and we all lived together, both black and white, peacefully."

Cundiff married a farmer (the late Calvin "T.C." Cundiff) and had to adjust to that life.

"I learned to help in tobacco (farming) and do all the things that I never thought I would ever do," she said.

The couple had six children -- the late Ronald Wayne (U.S. Air Force), Terry (retired from Yokahama), Barbara Kaye Humphreys (retired from teaching), Tommy (with Franklin Welding), Betty Finch (a beautician) and David (chairman of the board of supervisors and Rocky Mount Police Chief).

All of that versatility has been carried over throughout her career.

"I started working in the public sector teaching music at Dudley and Sontag elementary schools," she said. "I then went to work for Sears Roebuck as a credit manager."

After that she went to Phelps and Armstead in Martinsville as credit manager, then to Probst Childress.

Cundiff said she has seen many changes in the area over the years.

"Rocky Mount was a bustling town," she said. "You could buy anything you wanted on Main Street."

From grocery stores to clothing to hardware and restaurants, the retail stores, mostly locally owned, lined Main and Franklin streets, she said.

But Rocky Mount has gone the way of most towns, she added, as more and more larger chain stores moved in and located out of town.

That change started here in the early 1980s, she said.

The attitude of many people in business and government changed as well, she said, relating stories about how everyone used to work together.

"They (business owners and town officials) got more directly involved very quickly if you went to them and asked them for something," she said.

That cooperation is not as evident these days, she added.

But Cundiff is proud of what has been done.

"As our home merchants have closed and left us, we look back and know that what we have done was very valuable to the town and county and that we have done this without expecting anything except that we were trying to preserve a way of life in a way that we can all be proud of," she said.

Rocky Mount Mayor Steve Angle said there is indeed much to be proud about.

"Mrs. Cundiff has become synonymous with the organization she served and still runs it with passion, love and commitment," he said. "A lot has changed since the 1960s in Rocky Mount, and Mrs. Cundiff's zeal, guidance and energy have helped Rocky Mount grow and become the great community it is, while at the same time, retaining the magic from our past."

Cundiff, who has no plans to retire any time soon, said she has worked with some "wonderful people and people who cared and were concerned about Rocky Mount and Franklin County."

"We have been blessed to work with and to remember true leaders and business people," she said. "There are some that in my opinion can never be replaced ... Mayors Elliot Perdue and Allan Woody, Kermit Salyer, Miles Holland and so many others that we are proud to have known."

"Whatever the future brings, we hope to be remembered as an organization that stood for truth, honesty and caring," she said.

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