To world traveler, Darlington County now feels like home
By Samantha Lyles
Compared to bustling, exotic ports of call like Singapore, Darlington County must seem rather sedate. But that suits Dick Spinazzola just fine. In fact, the Pennsylvania native has become quite a booster of Darlington.
Born in 1932 in a railroad town, there were few career options for local men that didn’t involve life on the rails. Seeking something different, Dick moved to Virginia and went to work for General Electric. Despite being a young go-getter type, his lack of a college degree caused a collision with the sheepskin ceiling. GE wouldn’t promote him past a certain point, so Dick signed on with a competitor – a company that immediately moved him into management – and found himself on the fast track to the far east.
“I had never traveled before, and my first trip took me halfway around the world,” Dick recalls.
At age 30, Spinazzola was tasked with building a new factory in Singapore. He circumvented the language barrier by hiring a multi-lingual taxi driver to help him get around and get things done. He hacked a production problem (turns out sensitive electronic coils don’t like humidity) by building a climate controlled facility within the new factory. After this success, other new factories followed in Taipei, in Wilmington, North Carolina, and in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Eventually he got so much done at his new job that his old employer – General Electric – came calling again. This time, they offered Dick a management track that sent him to Florence as manager of manufacturing engineering in 1976. When that factory was restructured, Spinazzola was called up to corporate and wound up working two doors down from GE’s famed chairman, Jack Welch. Other management opportunities followed, including his final stop in Charlottesville, Va.
Retirement was nice, he says, until life on idyllic Lake Gaston got boring … and a little lonely.
“After about 22 years, the kids and grandkids quit coming, so we decided to move closer to them (in Florence),” says Dick.
So he and wife Debbie set up house in Darlington County and started searching for hobbies to enjoy together. Primed for a new obsession, the Spinazzolasnazzolas found pickleball and it was true love. A downscaled, fun-focused crossbreed of tennis and ping pong, pickleball is easy to learn, affordable to take up, and very addictive. Dick started up the Pee Dee Picklers club and as interest grew and new courts sprang up all over Florence, the couple decided to bring their beloved sport to Darlington.
“There’s tennis courts (at the Bill Cain Tennis Center on Pearl Street) right beside the Roses store, and we set up two pickleball courts there and started playing. We’re now up to fifteen people playing there regularly,” Dick says.
With a builder’s mindset, even at age 87, Dick wants to keep growing the sport and bringing in new converts. To this end, he and Debbie have teamed with Darlington Country Club owner Tim Huntley to introduce pickleball to the tennis and golf crowd.
“Since Tim bought the country club, he’s put two dedicated pickleball courts in there, and two tennis courts. He’s really trying to make that club something special,” Dick says. “And it’s more than just pickleball; we’re going to bring in a Neil Diamond impersonator to do a live show, and we want to start doing (model) horse races.”
The raffle-style horse racing game involves dice throws, 3D-printed horses, and a canvas racecourse laid out on dining tables.
“Debbie is handling most of the legwork for getting these shows started, and Tim is looking to get sponsors for these events,” Dick says.
Due to the Coronavirus Covid-19 belaying all large public gatherings, the model horse races and “Sweet Caroline” singalongs may take a while to get some traction. But if Spinazzola’s track record is any indication, he will make it happen, and he hopes that Darlington will come out to support the country club’s revitalization.
“I lived here fifty years ago in Florence and I loved it, and now I love living in Darlington,” he says. “There’s a lot of great things happening, and great people like Tim investing in the town… I hope people will come out and see what’s happening there. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”