Former Belmont resident Jethro Mann, who died Monday at age 96, could fix anything – especially old bicycles.
For years, he repaired and loaned bikes to children and adults in the eastern Gaston County town.
He was already a local legend before appearing in an episode of CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt’s “On the Road” TV show in 1983.
After that, Mann became an American folk hero known as “The Bicycle Man.” In May 1997, when Kuralt gave the commencement address at Belmont Abbey College, he had Mann stand to be recognized by the graduation audience.
Mann left Belmont in 2007 and moved to an independent living apartment complex in Lakeland, Fla., where his daughter, Peggy Mann Robinson, lives.
Mann’s fix-it talents became well known in his new environment, she said. Neighbors asked him to repair their walkers and wheelchairs.
“Daddy was a very simple man who kept things, saying, ‘I might have use for it someday, or somebody else might use it,’” Robinson said this week, shortly after taking a call from CBS News. “I think he’ll be most remembered for the way he always helped people.”
Born Jan. 1, 1917 in Curryville, Ga., Mann made his own toys as a youngster. When he came to Belmont in 1941, he worked with an African-American contractor who built many of the buildings in downtown Belmont.
In 1946, after a two-year Navy hitch, Mann started his own construction company.
One of his first jobs was building a house for himself, his wife Emma and their three children. Eventually, Mann would build most of the houses in the new black neighborhood, the Reid community.
Mann trained people in bricklaying, carpentry and house designing. A former Belmont Citizen of the Year, he was also associate pastor of Hood AME Zion Church, which he helped design and build.
In a 2006 interview with the Observer, Mann was still running his “bicycle lending library” while repairing other things.
Wearing a worker’s jumpsuit, yellow hard hat and tie, he rummaged through his 1977 Ford station wagon searching for tools. In addition to repairs, he also kept busy buying and selling scrap metal and driving people to the doctor’s office.
“The Bicycle Man” was still the subject of magazine pieces and film crews occasionally showed up from such places as California.
Mann’s seven-room house was filled with old bicycles and plaques honoring his community service. One called him “Children’s Best Friend.”
“A lot of kids rode bikes they wouldn’t have had but for Jethro,” said former Belmont City Council member George Hall. “He was well-respected. I hope the city acknowledges the fact we’ve lost a good citizen.”
Oscar Reid, 63, of Belmont said Mann was a life-long friend who “always, always wanted to help someone.”
“If I was having car trouble I’d call him and say ‘Mr. Jethro, my car is sputtering,’ and he’d say ‘Bring it down, Oscar, bring it down,’” Reid recalled.
Over the years, Reid said that when people learned he was from Belmont, they mentioned that was the Bicycle Man’s home.
“They didn’t know his name,” Reid said. “They just knew him as the Bicycle Man from Belmont. I would spell out his name for them.”
When Mann moved to Florida, he called Reid three or four times a year and his voice always had the usual spark.
“He was the same old Jethro,” Reid said. “Trying to make the world a better place.”
Mann’s wife died in 2000. He is survived by a son, two daughters, eight grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and several great-great grandchildren.
Costner Funeral Home of Gastonia is in charge of local arrangements.
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