Days before Christmas, Brian Singletary hovered over a checkout station at his Publix store and watched 10-pound Hormel hams glide along the black conveyor belt — 300 before they stopped coming.
"These will feed a lot of poor families,'' said Martha O'Brien, an officer with the nonprofit Volunteer Way as two burly men packed the hams in boxes. She stood on her toes to wrap her arms around the tall store manager. "You're a special man,'' she said.
Singletary hears that a lot these days, for good reason. The New Port Richey City Council even put it in writing with a resolution that called him a "true local hero.'' The council proclaimed Dec. 31 "Brian Singletary Day'' in the city.
All of which made this modest man blush and insist that all he has ever done is his job.
People call him a legend and godfather of store managers, to which he says, "I'm flattered, but I'm just a blue collar guy with a great team. That's it.''
Well, not exactly.
When Singletary retires on the final day of this month, he will have logged 51 years, 9 months and 16 days with Publix, having started as a stock clerk in Tarpon Springs in 1962. That makes him the longest-serving manager in a chain with 1,080 stores in five states. Publix has 161,000 employees and only one, a part-time produce worker in Jacksonville, has been with the company longer (53 years).
Longevity is impressive, but that isn't what earned Singletary the top three honors Publix can bestow on its employees. In 2000, he was presented the George W. Jenkins Award for Excellence, named after the man who founded Publix in 1930 and died in 1996. The company's hierarchy recognized Singletary's extraordinary record in serving customers and his community.
He came to New Port Richey in 1965 when Publix opened a new store in the Southgate Shopping Center on U.S. 19. The company later pulled him into service at other stores in Pinellas, but for the last 24 years, he has managed the Southgate store. He drew on his credibility with the company to secure major funding for the Chasco Fiesta, the city's annual celebration which generates money for several nonprofit charities. Publix's commitment encouraged other corporate sponsors.
Singletary advocated for virtually every good cause that came along, including feeding the poor. And he made a special effort to provide jobs for high school students — about 1,500 at last count.
"I looked for kids who fit the Publix model,'' explained the man who personifies the model. "Great smiles. You have to like people.''
Singletary hired two current City Council members, Bill Phillips and Jeff Starkey, when they were in high school. He employed future mayors, lawyers, doctors, teachers. He mentored young people and set an example with hard work and strong ethics.
Some employees worried that he worked too much as he came to the store seven days a week. "I live just down the road,'' he said. "This store has been my life. I love coming here. I love my people. I'm still not really sure how I'm going to handle leaving it, but it's time.''
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For all his dedication and accomplishments, the last three years have been difficult and emotional for Singletary and his wife, Kally, who spent 33 years with Publix before retiring. Their son, Greg Janowski, 40, was making a career with Publix when a disgruntled fired employee shot him to death in 2010 as he sat in his car at the Tarpon Springs supermarket.
"You walk in our house and the first thing you see is his picture,'' Singletary said. "The pain never goes away.''
Now 72 and in good health, Singletary expects this is a good time to experience new things. He's never been overseas or even to New York City. He wants to see Alaska. He lives on the water but rarely touches his boat. He has played golf in the past but jokes that he has been banned from most courses.
"It's going to be quite an adjustment,'' he said. "It's kind of scary. But I quit smoking 40 years ago. Cold turkey. I can do this.''