Not so long ago, Harry McLaughlin was jetting around the world, providing protection to U.S. presidents and their families and watching The Nutcracker Suite Russian ballet with President Clinton in the St. Petersburg theater where it was first performed 130 years ago.
When I spoke with him one morning last week, though, he was in in the middle of coordinating deliveries to the family-owned grocery store he now runs in Salisbury.
How, I asked, trying not to sound too incredulous, did he go from being a member of the U.S. Secret Service to checking inventory and slicing souse meat for customers at McLaughlin’s Grocery?
“I was getting burned out,” he said. “The Secret Service is a younger man’s game. You’re on your feet 12 hours a day, on the road 270 days a year.”
While accompanying President Bush to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, he said, “I worked 31 days straight, 12 hours a day. I didn’t mind when I was younger, but when you get older and have other commitments… I figured it was time to try something different, and I always wanted to run my own business.
“Running the grocery store wasn’t my first choice,” he said, “but I saw the value of it.”
While traveling the country with the secret service, he said, he saw neighborhoods that once had rich traditions of African American entrepreneurship. “But they’re gone,” he said ruefully.
When his Uncle John McLaughlin called it quits on running the store that has been in the community near Livingstone College for 89 years and in the family for 65, he said he thought it was a good time to put his Business degree from Morehouse College to good use.
If you're anything like me, you probably thought Food Lion was the only iconic grocery store that started in Salisbury. The McLaughlins purchased the store in 1958, one year after Food Lion started.
If you're anything like me again, your first thought was "Hmmm, a former Secret Service agent who went from guarding Xi Jinping to running his family-owned grocery store: Is this dude The Equalizer, like Denzel who, after a lifetime as a CIA agent, retired to work at Home Depot?"
Oh, I'm the only one, huh?
Was serving on the White House security detail as glamorous as it appears from the outside?
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “What makes it glamorous is the tremendous amount of responsibility. A lot of times, you’re on your own. You’re not only protecting the president and his family, but you have foreign dignitaries, whether it be Putin or the president of China” to look after.
After President Obama turned the keys to the White House over to President Trump in 2017, McLaughlin opted to turn in his shield, dark glasses and earpiece.
(Okay, maybe I’ve been watching too many Mission: Impossible movies.)
“Just going through that whole election process kind of burned me out,” he said of his decision to exit government service.
He obviously didn’t stay burned out long, because two years ago he ran for a seat on the Salisbury City Council: enough voters were wild about Harry that he was elected to a two-year term. (An upcoming referendum could increase terms to four years.)
What, I asked, changed his mind so drastically about politics?
“I had worked at the grocery store for a few years and I saw some things that made me think this community was being left out,” he said. “Salisbury is a growing city and I wanted to give every citizen a chance to participate and have a say in what makes it great.
“Being in D.C., I had the chance to talk to political leaders, and I thought the experience and institutional knowledge I’ve gained” could be applied to what was happening in Salisbury, he said.
“The first year was like a rollercoaster,” he said. “I was just trying to take in everything. It took a minute to get adjusted to the lingo and to how things got done.”
One of his priorities, he said, is ensuring that current Salisbury residents aren’t priced out of affordable housing by people fleeing higher home prices in Greensboro and Charlotte.
McLaughlin said he has not decided whether he will seek re-election.
If he doesn’t, chances are he’ll still be contributing to the city from behind the counter of his family’s store, which he calls a “living museum.”
If he does, who knows: he could conceivably end up in the White House in a different capacity.
And he’ll already know where everything is.