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When it came to growing SPC Mechanical Contractors, C. Buren Williford’s leadership and expertise was well known. His participation in various boards around Wilson was lesser known, but the 83-year-old entrepreneur wasn’t involved for the recognition. Those nearest to him said he just wanted to do his part to better Wilson.
“He was extremely proud of the business he built and above all his family,” Wilson Economic Development Executive Director Jennifer Lantz said of Williford who passed away Sunday. “Buren was extremely generous, but also not really interested in gaining any credit from his generosity.”
Williford was born in 1934 following the Great Depression, working around his family’s farm before taking a job at 16 as a school bus driver. His engineering expertise was built on the job rather than in a classroom following high school and in 1965, he started Southern Piping. With just one truck, he and his wife went to work building the company from the ground up while raising three young sons.
“Growing up, I didn’t know it was a massive company. I just knew he went to work and was gone a lot,” said Tim Williford, the youngest of the three sons. “He had a second family at work that was intermingled with ours. I grew up thinking of the folks at Southern Piping like cousins because we saw them so much.”
Buren Williford’s fabrication and installation expertise became well known, not just regionally but across the Southeast. He led the company’s expansion, eventually growing SPC Mechanical Contractors — the new name for Southern Piping after its 50th anniversary in 2015 — to establish additional offices in Winston-Salem, Raleigh and Wilmington.
His three sons soon followed in his footsteps, making their own mark on the company. Chris and Mark Williford eventually took the reins of the company from Buren when he retired in 2002, while Tim Williford used his experience with the company to build a consulting firm with a specialization in family-owned businesses.
“He retired in name only,” Tim Williford said. “He never really stopped working, I don’t think he really wanted to. It was just not who he was. He was a man of action.”
Whether working full- or part-time at SPC, Buren Williford could be counted on to lend a hand around town. He served in a variety of boards and advisory positions, including more than a decade each on the Wilson Economic Development Council and the board of Wilson County Properties.
“Buren believed that Wilson could attract industry if we developed the right type of industrial parks,” Lantz said. “He worked tirelessly on the Wilson Corporate Park and the Campus at 587. He attended community meetings, city and county hearings and talked with numerous industry leaders over his tenure. Buren helped craft some unique property deals that resulted in locating what today is Weener Plastics and Cott Beverage. He was instrumental in getting the city and county to establish our shell building fund.”
And while he never went to college, he made sure his sons and others got the opportunity. The C. Buren and Peggy Williford Scholarships at Wilson Community College are awarded to four students ever year and the patriarch served in trustee positions at the community college and Barton College.
Wilson Community College President Tim Wright said Buren Williford took his four-year governor-appointed spot as a college trustee seriously.
“He’d always walk into the room with a smile on his face,” Wright recalled. “He might have something to say or joke with you about something, but when it was time to work, he was very serious.”
Wright said his construction expertise came in handy with regard to the Lee Campus project — wisdom he also used to help as a trustee at First Christian Church.
“He was not pretentious in any way despite all of his accomplishments,” the Rev. Gary Walling of First Christian Church said. “He was modest and soft-spoken about all those.”
Walling said Buren Williford’s wisdom was invaluable as were his overall contributions to Wilson.
“He has been a wonderful person of faith, but his impact goes well beyond the walls of the church,” Walling said. “He has been a great person for the Wilson community.”
Buren Williford’s funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at First Christian Church, 207 Tarboro St. N. He is survived by his wife, Peggy, three sons, nine grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.
“You have to admire a guy that has come from nothing and done so well. He provided jobs for a lot of people and gave back to the community,” said friend David West. “Wilson is better off because of Buren Williford.”