The first couple honored together by Statesboro's two Rotary Clubs as Citizens of the Year — breaking with a 48-year tradition of individual honorees — bring Christmas delight to tens of thousands each year and pass the resulting good will on to people in need.
Since Roy and Deborah Thompson were the ones who got the award, presenting it to the two together was probably the only way.
"I would not have walked up here," Roy Thompson said after first she and then he had thanked everyone. "Not knowing who it was for a while, and then they started talking about Christmas lights, but I would not have walked up here without my wife."
Each year the Thompsons ask visitors to their vast TMT Farms Christmas display to donate food, toys, money or pet supplies for local charities. The food — 43 tons of it in December 2018 — is dispersed to people in the community with the help of the Christian Social Ministries and its director, John Long. Invited to Monday's special lunch meeting on the ruse that Long was to receive the award, the Thompsons sat beside him.
But when Keely Fennell, co-owner of NeSmith Construction and Land Development, started doing the reveal, who she was actually talking about quickly became obvious.
When Fennell was a child, her father, also in the construction business, would take her along to various building supply and furnishings businesses in town. But the people in one place would make her feel special, she said. They always welcomed her with "a snack, a real bottled Coke and a cool place to hang out," she said.
"What I've learned over the years is this: I really wasn't that special; this is how they treated everyone," Fennell said. "They didn't care if you were rich, poor, black, white, old or young. They value people for who they are without any pretenses, and this is one thing I admire most about them."
She had made those fondly recalled visits to Statesboro Floor Covering, which was founded in 1952 by Roy Thompson's parents, Leroy and Nita Thompson, and has been carried on by Roy and Deborah Thompson since the 1980s.
The Thompsons have two children, Tyler Thompson and Jennifer McCranie, and nine grandchildren. Several family members including grandson Chase Thompson, who works at Statesboro Floor Covering, attended the award luncheon. So did employees Connie and Tim Robbins.
The business has provided the substance for private generosity, according to Fennell's description.
"They were always quietly making a difference in the lives of others," she said. "I've heard stories of them paying off layaways, buying food, paying house payments. ... They continue to be some of the most generous people I've ever known."
Their first home was in Statesboro. But after the Thompsons built a home on a farm in the north part of Bulloch County and moved there in 1994, they grew their generosity in a unique way. It started with a small display, "a wagon and a few reindeer," Fennell said.
"That modest Christmas display has grown tremendously, to encompass over 1.8 miles of Christmas wonderland," she said. "In addition, this display is seen by approximately 350,000 people during the holidays. Y'all, that's a lot of people. This display has gotten to be one of the biggest and, in my opinion, the best in the Southeast," she said.
Noting the tons of donations received, she added that the Thompsons "consider this a way to minister to others as they have become the hands and feet of Jesus."
Roy Thompson has served 14 years on the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners and has been its chairman, elected countywide, since January 2017. Both Thompsons are active members at First Baptist Church, where Deborah Thompson sings in the Celebration Choir. Both are active in the Statesboro Homebuilders Association.
They are also big supporters of athletics at Portal Middle High School, Southeast Bulloch High School, Statesboro High School and Bulloch Academy and active fans of Georgia Southern football and basketball, Fennell said.
When she called their names, both Thompsons came forward with teary eyes, as the crowd applauded.
Share the thanks
"We're so blessed to live in a community where it's so easy to want to give and do," Deborah Thompson said, "because, like Keely said, we know that God has used us as instruments, and each of you that have been involved and have come and helped and give and share are part of that ministry."
She thanked the Rotary Clubs, and then thanked Long.
"We couldn't do our Christmas ministry without him, and we are just so blessed to call him friend, and we love him," she said.
"All I can say is thank you very much," Roy Thompson said. "TMT Farms will be ready for Christmas again this year. With over 45,000 vehicles that came last year, we hope to surpass that again this year, and like Deborah said, we couldn't have done it without y'all."
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 764-9458.