FORT MILL — Throughout his life, John Leighton “Jase” Epps went through a variety of nicknames others would give him. “Mr. Golf Cart Man,” the “Tomato Man” and “Dad” were usually the most popular among friends and family.
Epps lived a simple life with those he loved most, including his produce customers. Attendees of his wake at Wolfe Funeral Home in Fort Mill recalled countless stories of passing him near Doby’s Bridge Road on their way around town. One could rarely fail to spot Epps, motoring along in a golf cart after age hampered his freedom to walk around his beloved roadside vegetable garden.
Epps died May 12 at Carolinas Medical Center in Pineville. He was 98.
“He told me ‘I’m doing my best to make it to 100,’” said nephew Bill Whitley. “He had had three aunts before him who did.”
The Epps’ family, which has at least seven generations buried in Flint Hill Baptist Church’s cemetery, has become a fixture in the Fort Mill area, and John was no exception. After being born in Gold Hill in 1914, he graduated in the last class of Flint Hill School before it shut down in the 1920s. He would then begin a solid baseball career as a first baseman with the Fort Mill High Yellow Jackets and an amateur team at the Springs textiles mill.
“I went to a lot of his baseball games,” Whitley said. “He got new overalls from the company every time he hit a homerun.”
“He kept the baseball lore to himself,” adds Rusty Crenshaw, a family friend. “I knew him for 10 years and I would have talked to him all about that if I had known about it but he didn’t need to talk about it.”
Life was more about baseball for Epps. Shortly before the onset of American involvement in World War II, he would marry his wife, Mildred. The two would have been married 74 years in August.
While his brother Joel served in the U.S. Army under Gen. George S. Patton, John Epps was labeled physically unable to serve after an unlucky bout of appendicitis hit him just before he could make it to the draft office.
After a long career with Springs, punctuated by a spell at a Celanese plant, Epps retired to raise produce in the town he loved. The family is so close to Fort Mill tradition that even the flowers adorning Epps’ casket were from Spratt Street.
Bill Baker is another of John’s old neighbors and remembers Epps from when Baker was working for the old Fort Mill A&P store and would carry Epps’ groceries to the car.
“He was always good to people and made friends easily,” Baker said. “He always gave me a tip.”
Epps’ mission in later life, family say, was to give back, which he did through his garden on Doby’s Bridge Road. His connection with nature was unmistakable. One neighbor says that when the animals came out, he would turn his television off, because they were more interesting to listen to.
“He wanted to stay busy,” Baker said. “He always had a young mind, he never thought of himself as old. We used to walk down to the garden together and when he couldn’t stand, we’d use the golf cart.”
A simple man, living in a simple lifestyle, was able to touch the lives of many, including his son Jimmy, who says he planted tomatoes with his father just a month before John passed away.
“When he wanted something done,” said Jimmy, “he got it done, all right. He was a great man.”