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'Old-school Southern gentleman' a role model for family, co-workers at Groton commissary

Groton — David B. "Pops" Hamlin gets to the Naval Submarine Base early four mornings a week, so he can catch up with his friends before work.

At 92, he shows up because he wants to, bagging groceries for an hour or 90 minutes while bantering with co-workers.

"He's got a great rapport with everyone. Everyone loves him," said Lisa Reynolds, assistant head bagger and a longtime co-worker of Hamlin. "He can go at his own pace. We never rush him."

He's a private man with a quirky sense of humor, Reynolds said, and the staff didn't know how Hamlin would react when they surprised him with a birthday cake in the break room a couple years ago. He was "over the moon," she said.

The job enables him to get out of the house and socialize, and in the workplace Hamlin, a veteran of both the Navy and Coast Guard, is a role model to his younger colleagues.

"I don't know him as well as everyone else does," Commissary Officer Kim Solie said. "But what always impressed me is that no matter where you are with that gentleman, he is so chivalrous. He will never let a woman walk behind him. He's just an old-school Southern gentleman. He even told me he tries to teach the young boys how to treat a lady."

As beloved as Hamlin is at work, he's dearer still to the members of his sprawling family, imparting his work ethic, wisdom and generosity to his adoring children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

"He always told us to have a job, that you can't ask anyone for anything. That you have to do it yourself," said his daughter, Darien Sebastian-Hamlin. 

Though that's his attitude, and he always tells them, "Having a little money is better than no money," Hamlin has helped many family members financially with their car loan payments, rent or other bills when they got behind. 

Sebastian-Hamlin lives with her father at his home on Carol Court, along with his granddaughter Randa, who he took in at age 10 when her mother, Dawn, died. The family says Hamlin and his late wife, Dolores, took in families and fostered children routinely over the years. And when they weren't living with him, large numbers of family members and friends were spending the holidays at "Pop's" house or stopping by for a meal.

The Hamlins have endured illness, addiction, death and even the murder of one of their own, Hamlin's grandson Anthony, in 2006. Through it all, they say "Pops" Hamlin, who they say is devoutly Christian, has been their rock.

"I know when I was going through it with Anthony, I was having a terrible day," remembered Hamlin's oldest daughter, Darlene, whose son's homicide went unsolved for 11 years. "My father said, 'Listen, this is what you're going to do. Your daughter (Casandra Hadley, in Virginia) said you could live with her. Pack your bag. I'll get you a ticket. You have to get away.'"

His granddaughter Amy Ruffin remembered how Hamlin calmed her over the phone when she was in labor.

"Grandpa has been a father to most of all of our immediate family members," said Ruffin, who lives in Williamsburg, Va. "He's held the family down no matter what we were all going through. He was the place to go to. Grandpa was always the salvation, the beacon of light, the strength. He put his own personal feelings and what he was going through aside to give us the strength to keep going."

Hamlin was born in 1927 in Society Hill, S.C. He was raised by his great-grandmother and attended an all-Black school. He said his relatives owned stores in their "mixed" race town and had their own homes, so he was "brought up in pretty good shape."

He enlisted in the Navy in 1943, serving until 1946. He lived briefly with his mother in Newark, N.J., but decided to reenlist. When the Navy told him that everybody was getting discharged at that time, after World War II, he joined the Coast Guard and served until 1964, when he retired off the Coast Guard Cutter USS Yakutat.

Stationed in Groton while attending training at Avery Point, Hamlin met his future wife, Dolores Sebastian, at the USO building on Coit Street in New London in 1947. They married in 1948 and started their family immediately, becoming parents to Darlene, Darien, David Jr., Damon, Dawn, Dennis, Davida, Derek (who died in infancy) and Danette.

His wife, "Bless her soul," started with D names, and they just continued, he said.

While in the Coast Guard, he worked on engines at the underwater sound laboratory at Coast Guard Station New London and operated boats in New York during the Korean War. 

His wife died of brain cancer in 1993.

The family is always trying to think of ways to show their appreciation to Hamlin, and four or five years ago, his daughter Davida Hamlin said she gave him the gift of knowing his father's side of the family. His parents were divorced, which wasn't talked about back then, and Hamlin grew up thinking he was an only child, Davida Hamlin said. With the help of Michael Spellman of the Groton Public Library, she discovered he had a stepsister, and they went to South Carolina to meet her.

Hamlin eventually had his DNA analyzed, discovering he is 40% European, and also has reunited with a Caucasian cousin from North Carolina, whom he talks to monthly and who sends him pecans from the South, Davida Hamlin said.

k.florin@theday.com

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