Herman Hamilton holds court at namesake Hamilton’s Tavern
Once barred from the premises, the 83-year-old black Marine veteran digs the crowds and the place named in his honor
By Donna Marganella
Herman Hamilton sits quietly on his front steps just across the driveway that separates his home from Hamilton’s Tavern on 30th Street in South Park. He’s got a clear view of the front door and is watching the steady stream of young hipsters filing in for the pub’s traditional 2nd Saturday Celebration.
Described by owner Scot Blair as, “a true celebration of Hamilton’s customers and the best breweries in the world,” the 2ndSaturday event features draft beers from a local brewery at discounted prices, cask-conditioned ale chosen by the brewer and a gourmet smokehouse food-pairing based on the cask style, served free-of-charge.
As if specialty beers and free food weren’t enough there’s also the anything-but-standard selection of craft beers pouring from Hamilton’s 28 taps making 2nd Saturday a popular event. A very popular event. But the crowd for February’s 2nd Saturday was matched by the line-up of neighbors and patrons that first had to check in with the tavern’s namesake, Herman Hamilton.
Holding court on his front porch, the 83-year old Marine veteran and retired jack-of-all-trades was jovial and talkative in spite of recent health problems. Hamilton was enjoying the summer-like weather, accepting gifts and conversing with friends. One neighbor handed Hamilton a bag of fruit. “Now Herman, promise me you’re going to eat at least one of these a day. Okay? How are you doing with that protein powder I brought you?”
A lively exchange ensued about the protein powder and instructions for two scoops twice a day versus four scoops at once. “Two scoops, two times a day,” the neighbor repeated. “That’s best for you.”
Hamilton patiently greeted friends and neighbors stopping by to say hello. Some lingered like new parents watching over their newborn, but everyone was checking in to say hi and ask after Mr. Hamilton. Bar owner Scot Blair dropped onto the step next to Hamilton and posed for some quick photos.
“It was simple about naming the bar,” says Blair. “I knew Herman from Sparky’s and we knew we were going to be doing something cool here, so why not pay a little tribute to a Montford Point Marine? After all, I’m a former Marine too. When I asked him about it, of course in typical Herman fashion he said, ‘OK’ with a wry grin.”
It’s the same grin Hamilton sported that Saturday afternoon and the one that seems to have carried him through a peripatetic life that began in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on a plantation property. Later, says Hamilton, “we moved into town,” the family of three boys and five sisters relocating to Georgetown, S.C. His mother’s sisters lived in North Carolina and each summer Hamilton went to stay with family and work. Eventually, he left home, a young man in search of employment, for a job in a paper mill. After the paper mill was modernized and the jobs disappeared, Hamilton moved on again, the beginning of many jobs that have left him, “a jack- of- all-trades, master of none. I dug ditches, I’ve done it all — just about every job there is,” Hamilton says.
This was the beginning of a life-long pattern: the move, the search, the job, followed by another city, another search, another job. The result is a long list of homes around the country starting with Hendersonville, N.C., after World War II, New York City (Harlem and the Bronx) upstate New York (Syracuse and Auburn), California (Oakland and finally San Diego). When asked if San Diego is his favorite place, Hamilton is quick to answer.
“Anyplace I can make a living, I like,” he says firmly. “If I can’t make a living, I leave.” This is exactly what Hamilton did after he was released from military service in November, 1945. “There were no jobs back in North Carolina,” Hamilton says. “So I left. I’m going to find a job,” he says. “Even if I make 10 cents a day, I will find a job or I will move on.”
Hamilton was drafted into the military and sent to Montford Point Camp, Camp Lejeune, New River, N.C., where the first African-American Marines were sent for segregated training. He was one of some 20,000 African-American Marines who trained at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949 (montfordpointmarines.com).
Hamilton describes boot camp there as a “rough place.” “We went through hell,” he says matter of fact. “But I was strong then. And you just make it through.” After being shipped out to the South Pacific in 1944, Hamilton ended up in Sai Pan, where he served until the end of the war.
Like the many places he’s lived, Hamilton’s list of jobs is a long one. “I’ve done all kinds of work,” he says. “Trimmed trees, carpentry, landscaping, plumbing, factory work, been a custodian, a security guard. I’ve done it all,” he admits, except electrical work. “No electricity,” he says. “Too dangerous.” A man who has always taken his work seriously, Hamilton says, “When I work, I don’t play. And I don’t want to be disturbed at work. I love coming home, but when I’m working I don’t want to bother with things from home. I can deal with that when I get there.”
A cousin living in San Diego led him here in April 1974 where he got a job as a custodian in a Naval facility partially due to his military service. “I had security clearance so they took me,” Hamilton says. He worked there for 24 years, “until they closed the building and I was laid off,” he says.
When he first moved to San Diego, Hamilton says he did not patronize the bar that is now named for him. “I didn’t go in there because there were people who didn’t want me there. They wouldn’t let me in.” But at 83, Hamilton manages to see some humor and irony in that situation. “All the ones that didn’t want me around here, they’re all dead. And I’m still alive,” he says with a laugh. “I’m still here.”
When asked if he sees a difference in the generation that patronizes Hamilton’s now, if he notices a difference in attitude, he says, “There’s still some prejudiced people,” he admits. “But these guys around here, they’re all right.” Scot Blair, the current owner of Hamilton’s who named the bar for him, is obviously one of those good guys. When asked about Blair, Hamilton laughs and that wry smile appears. “That guy, he’s a talker. He could talk the pennies off a dead man’s eyes,” he says. At this point in his long journey, despite health issues that come with age, Hamilton can still tell a good story and his sense of humor comes through loud and clear.
The Hamilton’s Tavern Website (hamiltonstavern.com) says it best: “Our tavern was named after Mr. Herman Hamilton, a South Park resident for over 35 years and an American patriot, having served his country as a member of the storied Montford Point Marines. Although he does not drink, you can find Mr. Hamilton at the tavern nearly every day and he always has a kind word or classic story to share! Herman is our dear friend and we could not think of a better person as the namesake to our treasured alehouse then this remarkable man.”