Mike Darby vividly remembers the break between college graduation and his first day as a full-time employee at Darby Electric.
“I graduated on a Saturday and dad told me to be here on Monday morning,” Darby said last week, laughing at his father’s high standard for family members on the company payroll.
His sister, Susan Darby Hamilton, had an even shorter break when she graduated three years later. Her last day at Queens College in Charlotte was on a Thursday and she was at work Friday.
For the Darbys, the jobs required real work.
“He didn’t just sit us in the corner to give us money,” Mike Darby recalled. “We learned the business from the bottom up.”
That process began in 1977, when Mike Darby was a 16-year-old sophomore at T.L. Hanna High School and Hamilton was a 13-year-old seventh-grader at McCants Junior High School.
That summer, in the same building on U.S. 29 Bypass North in the city of Anderson, where they continue to work, the summer project called for a microfilm scan of every service job the company had performed since grandfather Barney Darby, who kept meticulous records, started the business in 1948.
“I thought it would take us forever. It was tedious. A lot of details,” Mike Darby remembers.
Such was the training process at Darby Electric, a family-operated business at which family has never been exempt from the hard work.
Mike Darby, now the chairman of the board, worked as a mechanic there in his high school and college years. Hamilton also spent years in the financial departments, all the while preparing to become the company president.
“He raised us to work here. We didn’t know any better,” Mike Darby joked on Tuesday, the anniversary date of the company’s first day of business in August 1948. “It’s fun to keep it going.
“We’re reminded pretty often that we’re a fourth-generation business, and not many last that long. It was dad’s dream that it did.”
And the dream, no doubt, of his father before that.
The company’s story begins in World War II, when Greenwood native Barney Darby learned armature rewinding, a subset of electric motor repair, while serving in the Navy. He came to Anderson in 1946 to work for a Woodward-Stephens shop, a well-known motor repair company.
Two years later, he and two friends, Duncan McIntyre Jr. and Edwin Dunlap, formed a partnership to begin a new company.
In contrast to the four buildings that make up the growing Darby Electric campus today, Barney Darby’s adventure began in the tight, modest surroundings of a basement of a commercial store on East Orr Street in Anderson now occupied by The Printer.
The business grew quickly, forcing two moves within the first seven years — the first to 115 River St. and the second to U.S. 29.
At the time, the road was known as “The Main Street of the South” because it connected Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. But Barney Darby’s primary concern was the transporting of motors to and from the 23 cotton mills operating in Anderson County.
The business has continued to grow on the road, expanding to three additional buildings since the relocation 61 years ago. The company that used a fleet of trucks to pick up and deliver motors in Barney Darby’s era now tackles jobs with corporations around the globe.
While Barney Darby was quietly building his business, he also built relationships in the community — serving as an active member of Anderson First Baptist Church, a member of the governing board at the YMCA, the Salvation Army and the United Fund (now United Way). He was president of the Lions Club at the time of his death in April 1973.
Joe Davenport, who followed Barney Darby as Lions Club president, remembers him as a leader well-known for his integrity.
“If ever there was an honest man, he was it,” Davenport said last week. “Barney was one of the finest people I’ve ever known.
“He was quiet, and when he spoke, people listened. He was generous with his time and his money; he sold a lot of brooms for the Lions Club.”
Steve Darby, a 1955 graduate of Boys High and 1959 graduate of The Citadel, followed his father’s civic lead.
He served in the Army from 1960 until 1962, then came home to serve the community while working at Darby Electric. He served several terms as president of the Anderson Rotary Club and the Anderson Jaycees and an international trade organization, and he was chosen by the Anderson Chamber of Commerce as 1995 Small Business Person of the Year.
In his eulogy of Steve Darby on Jan. 9, 2007, Anderson First Baptist Church senior pastor Jim Thomason called him “a high-responsibility person.”
“He didn’t seek accolades for what he did. He just did his best at everything he undertook, and people noticed,” Thomason said of Darby, who served many years as a deacon.
“When Mike called to tell me Steve had suffered the heart attack, it took my breath away,” Thomason said. “It was a huge loss to our church. He did everything in a quiet way, but did good things for a lot of people in our church and other organizations.”
When the church recently celebrated its 195th anniversary with a dinner, Thomason said he wasn’t surprised when he walked into the kitchen and found Mike Darby and his mother, Judy Darby, helping prepare the meal.
“They’re in the serving mode,” Thomason said.
Tri-County Technical College President Ronnie Booth had the same perspective when Steve Darby served as the chairman of board of the school’s foundation.
“Steve was fully engaged in life. When he was alive, I can’t recall ever going to a charity event and not seeing Steve and Judy there,” Booth said. “He modeled the way and set a high bar.”
“Michael is a whole lot like his daddy,” Booth said about the younger Darby, a graduate of The Citadel and Clemson and a past president of the Rotary Club of Greater Anderson. He also serves on the governing boards of the United Way and two career centers, and is chairman of Tri-County Tech’s Partnership for Academic and Career Education).
While the family-operated company is larger and more global than when Barney Darby moved it to the present location in 1955, the philosophy remains intact. Its staff of 30 includes 23-year-old Whit Hamilton, son of Susan and great-grandson of Barney Darby.
He’s working in various departments, none of them in the air-conditioned front office.
“He’s learning all of it,” his mother said.
It’s the Darby way.
Follow Abe Hardesty on Twitter @abe_hardesty