Robert Earl Brinkley set a great example for others to follow

Published 2:47 pm Thursday, July 13, 2023

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While majority of patriotic citizens across the United States were enjoying all the festivities last week that are traditionally associated with the annual observance of our nation’s independence, there was another celebration witnessed by only a select few.

Shortly before 5:30 pm on Tuesday, July 4, St. Peter opened the Pearly Gates and pointed Robert Earl Brinkley Sr. in the direction of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Oh what a glorious occasion that must have been as one of God’s most faithful and loyal servants entered the Kingdom of Heaven.

There’s probably not many mortals here in the Roanoke-Chowan region and beyond who didn’t know Robert Earl….a man who shared so much of himself to many different organizations while remaining steadfast in his duties as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather, and a friend.

I make it my job to interact with our local leaders, to include our businessmen and women. I first got to know Robert Earl that way when he worked at the Ahoskie branch of RBC Centura Bank and then when he opened up his own business: REB Farms, one where he helped local farmers with financial management and advice.

I learned very quickly that when people speak Robert Earl’s name, the words trust and respect are soon heard. Those worthy traits are not inherited or given freely….a person must earn them and Robert Earl certainly did.

In 2005, I was asked to join the Board of Directors of the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department. Robert Earl was a valued member of that board, serving as the treasurer, a position he held for more than 40 years. And he wasn’t just the “book keeper” as he would often lend his enormous talent in finance to search out ways to save money on purchases of needed equipment. He had a knack for that.

I recall stories that some of the “old guard” firemen shared about the early days of the Ahoskie Rural Fire Department. One said he remembered the first fire truck purchased by the Rural Department….back in a time when that group didn’t have “two nickels to rub together.” However, Robert Earl, they said, put together a deal to purchase a $57,000 fire truck.

Ditto for buying the first fire hoses, radios, and turnout gear needed by the firefighters. Robert Earl made it happen. And all this took place before a fire tax was implemented in the rural district.

I interviewed Robert Earl for a story in July of 2014 when he reunited with one of his Army buddies from the Korean War. Up until that hot summer day, the last time Robert Earl and Paul Ketchmark of Valparaiso, Indiana had stood face-to-face was December of 1953. At that time they were at an Army base in Germany awaiting transport home.

As the son of a World War II veteran, I thoroughly enjoyed sitting and listening to Robert Earl and Mr. Ketchmark reminisce about their time in service to our country. They served in the 721st Transportation Truck Company. Robert Earl was the Company Clerk, perhaps laying the foundation of what would become a successful career in financial management upon returning to Hertford County.

Brinkley and Ketchmark struck up a close bond due to the fact that Ketchmark was married and brought his wife to Germany. Thusly, the couple lived off base, requiring Ketchmark to have an overnight pass in order to leave the military compound.

“I was ordered not to let over 15 percent of the company leave the base at night, but I looked after those who were married and had their wives with them, to include Paul,” Brinkley told me in that interview nine years ago. “They always kidded me about who I would allow to leave the base overnight because it was a rarity to get one of those passes, especially on a consistent basis. Paul and I had a good relationship over there.”

“I never forgot abut my good buddy,” Ketchmark said, nodding his head in Brinkley’s direction. “He was mighty good to me.”

As it turned out, Robert Earl was “good” to a lot of people. He was instrumental in the work of the Lions Club, so much to the point that he earned the Lion of the Year Award by the North Carolina Lions Foundation. He spent 40-plus years in each the U.S. Farm Service Association and on the Board of Supervisors for the Hertford County Soil and Water Conservation District. He also served long tenures on the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association and the North Carolina Society of Farm Managers.

He was a member of Earlys Baptist Church for 72 years, serving there as a Deacon, Sunday School Director, and Treasurer. He had a guiding hand in several remodeling and building projects at that church.

Despite his attention being drawn in several different directions, what I admired the most about Robert Earl was the love and affection he outwardly showed for his family. He and his wife, Carolyn, were married for an amazing 72 years. They raised three sons, who like their father and mother, became proud and loving parents. Robert Earl often bragged on his seven grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. It’s very comforting to know that if any (or all) of those 17 combined offspring were wise enough to follow just a fraction of Robert Earl’s “playbook” on life, our little corner of the world, the state, the state, and the world will be a better place.

And count me in on following the example set by this true servant of God. I loved Robert Earl Brinkley as he reminded me so much of my now late father.

Yes, what a great celebration it must have been in Heaven last week when Robert Earl arrived. Rest easy, my friend, as your work on Earth is complete….we’ve got it from here!

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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