I’ll never forget the day I met Blanford Fetterman.
I was meandering in and out of businesses on High Street, a 643 meter stretch of road in the small town of Waynesburg, while taking Valentine’s Day-themed photographs for a related news story.
I was walking out the door of 5 Kidz Kandy, a local candy shop, when I eyed Fetterman sitting at one of their small tables, smiling at me through the glass window.
He had shaggy white hair—which was long overdue for a trim—that slowly flowed into a fully-pronounced beard. He was wearing a bluish-black flannel sweatshirt and a pair of black jeans. If Santa Clause had a ragged, down-on-his-luck brother, it would be him.
At the time, the window at 5 Kidz was ornamented with hearts and other love-themed decorations for the season. And right in the middle of it all was Blanford’s smiling face, creating the perfect juxtaposition between his rough appearance and the lovely décor.
“Can I take your picture?” I said, or, well, mouthed while pointing to the camera hanging around my neck. I was hoping he could read lips.
“Sure, I don’t care,” Fetterman said, somehow making that cold phrase seem warm.
And that was that.
While walking back, I slowly came to the realization that I never asked for his name. The journalist in me knew this would be a problem when it came to attributing in the photo’s caption. But there was also a curiosity in me that wanted to know more than just his name—I wanted to know his story.
After doing some research, I learned that Fetterman was more of a community staple; an unofficial mascot of Waynesburg, so to speak. Seeing Fetterman sitting at one of the tables in the candy shop that day wasn’t happenstance. In fact, it’s more of an everyday thing.
Fetterman’s a simple man of little-to-no words. And when he does talk, it’s as if his tongue is wrestling his teeth. He’s 55 years old and originally from Indiana County, Pa., but came to Waynesburg with his family, including his parents and six brothers and sisters, when he was around 17.
When he first moved into town, he went to Waynesburg Central High School. He said earning his diploma was a struggle.
“I hated high school and couldn’t wait to get out,” he said.
Instead, his main priority back then was working for a local farm in Ruff Creek. He also enjoyed going to Landmark Baptist Church on Porter Street, but his work on the farm got in the way.
“I had to work on the farm and didn’t have time to go no more,” Fetterman said.
One day while working at the farm, Fetterman got hurt. Like, really hurt. So hurt that he distinctly remembers injuring his back, but has no recollection of what really happened. His injury caused him to file for disability, and he’s been living off those very checks for the past 36 years.
Despite what happened, Fetterman has kept his faith through it all. To prove it, he has a small tattoo of a cross on his pointer finger.
“I’m thankful for God,” he said.
Fetterman also has a lot of respect for his parents.
“My parents were real nice people,” he said. “They took really good care of me, and all I ever wanted to do was make them proud.”
Both of Fetterman’s parents have long since passed away. A few of his brothers and sisters used to keep him company when they lived in Waynesburg, but now that they’ve moved, Fetterman is all alone.
To pass the time, Fetterman is constantly jaunting around Waynesburg and never sits still in his tiny apartment, which he describes as “just enough space.” At any given time on any given day, he can be seen somewhere on High Street. Some days, he’ll just be sitting on the Courthouse steps, watching the traffic light switch from green to yellow to red to green. Or maybe, he’ll be gossiping with the local police officers on their stoop, joking with them about taking one of the cop cars for a spin. If you can’t find him there, he might be grocery shopping in Belko Foods or Family Dollar. Or he could just be casually walking down the street, spitting his chewing tobacco off the curb and onto the cold pavement.
But as for his favorite stomping ground for the past three years? 5 Kidz Kandy, no contest.
Kristy Vliet met Fetterman the way most people do. She had just cut the ceremonial ribbon of her new candy shop in the summer of 2014 when she began to notice a pattern.
“When we first opened, he used to sit on the steps over at the Police Department, and that’s kind of how we got to talk to him,” said Vliet, the owner of 5 Kidz Kandy. “Once we got more comfortable, we invited him to come sit in our shop.”
The rest was history.
“He comes in fairly regularly—most of the time during inclement weather,” said Vliet. “Sometimes he falls asleep in the chair.”
Vliet said Fetterman mostly minds his own business while sitting in 5 Kidz. Sometimes he talks to the other customers who come in. Other times he’ll thumb through a copy of a newspaper and every few lines, he’ll ask her what a certain word means. She said she keeps him quenched with coffee and water, and she’ll feed him when she can. Sometimes when she’s decorating cupcakes, he’ll stand nearby and watch every stroke that flows from her piping bag. He’s an observer.
But Fetterman doesn’t just sit around in the shop all day. Vliet trusts him enough to put him to work from time to time.
“He does errands for me if I’m real busy or whatever,” she said. “He’ll run to the bank for me, or run and get me a certain ingredient if I need it.”
Vliet said a lot of people see Fetterman sitting in 5 Kidz and make their own assumptions. Many think he’s homeless and lazy; simply sucking the government’s teat and loitering at his leisure. But to those who know the real story, like Vliet, it’s clear to see that he’s harmless.
“If I give him $20 and ask for two rolls of quarters, he’ll come back from the bank and make sure I know it’s all there,” said Vliet. “People think I’m crazy for trusting him, but I don’t care.”
Some customers have even voiced their opinions to Vliet while Fetterman was there, in hearing distance.
“I don’t like that he gets picked on,” she said. “I don’t like the looks he gets when people walk in the door. That hurts.”
And in return for all she does, Fetterman thinks the world of Vliet.
“Kristy is a real nice lady,” said Fetterman. “I love helpin’ her.”
While talking in the coffee shop, I asked Fetterman what his turning point was in his life. At 55 years old, I was expecting a great answer. Maybe it had something to do with his accident on the farm or some other regret he had from long ago. I sat on the edge of my seat, pencil in hand, anxiously awaiting his response.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t have one.”
My heart immediately sank as I sat there, not really sure how to respond to his answer. All of a sudden, like an angel answering my heart’s prayer, I heard a voice from behind me.
“Did you tell her about the time you saved someone’s life, Blanford?” said Vliet, eavesdropping from behind the counter.
I snapped back to look at Blanford, whose face lit up when he began to remember.
“No,” he said, grinning.
I looked to Vliet again, perplexed, wondering if she was serious. She slightly nodded her head.
“Yep, he saved someone from drowning,” Vliet replied. “Why don’t you tell her about it, Blanford?”
Years ago, there was a terrible flood in Waynesburg. Fetterman happened to be in the right place at the right time as he saw something strange floating down a nearby creek. To his surprise, Fetterman couldn’t believe was a local boy named Bob Evans—yes, that’s his real name—bobbing in and out of the water and struggling for air.
“He was floating down the crick,” he said. “I just jumped in and saved him.”
Fetterman is a firm believer in heroes. He was a volunteer firefighter when he still lived in Indiana. He loves reading comic books at the local comic shop in town. However, he doesn’t even consciously acknowledge his own heroic act. To him, it was just another day of doing what he loves.
“I like helping people,” said Fetterman. “It makes me feel good.”
Blanford loves his life just the way it is. He doesn’t mind being unemployed. He doesn’t mind living alone, because that’s not how he feels.
“It’s fun in Waynesburg,” he said. “I got a lot of friends.”
Fetterman says he doesn’t have any special talents or hobbies. He’s a ham-and-egger fellow who lives each day as it comes. And as for his main goal in life?
“I just wanna be friends and get along with everyone,” he said.
For now, Fetterman will continue living his life the way he likes it. And if you ever need to know the latest town rumor or if you just need someone to shoot the breeze with, just take a walk down High Street.
He’ll be there.