Mourners remember ‘pure heart and pure soul’ of Commerce murder victim

Hundreds celebrate beloved 72-year-old’s kindness at memorial service, vigil

Credit: Henri Hollis /

Credit: Henri Hollis /

Kindness was Calvin Varnum’s calling.

The 72-year-old Commerce man was known for standing in a few predictable places around town, waving and smiling at everyone who went by. He visited his regular haunts on a daily basis, like Huck’s Cafe, where owner Jamie Peters said Varnum would often make new friends who would immediately offer to buy him lunch, or Hardee’s, where he could be found for both breakfast and dinner on many days. Described by his family as having special needs, Varnum thrived in his routine.

“That was your thing: to wave and smile. And I didn’t understand it,” said Marshall Varnum Sr., Calvin’s brother, at a memorial service Wednesday at the Jefferson Civic Center. “But I realize now that you were out there making a difference.”

Credit: Facebook photo

Credit: Facebook photo

It was outside that Hardee’s on the morning of May 21 that Calvin was senselessly shot and killed. The quiet northeast Georgia community would have been rocked by any homicide, but the loss of such a beloved, widely recognized figure has led to an uncommon outpouring of grief.

Hundreds attended a vigil for Calvin in Commerce on Tuesday night, lining the streets to wave and smile in his honor. Hundreds more mourners attended his memorial service Wednesday afternoon.

Instead of focusing on the anger or hurt in the community, Calvin’s family, friends and clergy chose instead to reflect on his kindness.

“The impact Calvin had on our community can’t be measured,” said Cameron Boswell, owner of Skate A-Rama and a former Commerce police officer. “My faith tells me that God was in need of someone with a pure heart and a pure soul to join him in heaven, stand on the streets of gold and greet all the newcomers.”

Boswell said he’d known Calvin for about 20 years, starting when he responded to a report of a suspicious person waving at cars from a street corner. He and Calvin formed a relationship that day that now extends to the rest of the Varnum family, he said. Boswell is responsible for setting up a fundraiser that garnered thousands of dollars to help cover Calvin’s funeral costs.

“At a lot of his stops, he found somebody to talk to,” Boswell said. “It didn’t matter who it was, but he never failed to brighten their day.”

On the day he was killed, Calvin appeared to have struck up a conversation with a man driving a blue Dodge Journey outside of his regular Hardee’s. After a few words were exchanged, the driver suddenly shot Calvin, according to Commerce police Chief Kenneth Harmon.

The suspect, 23-year-old Xavier Clark, was taken into custody less than 24 hours later and charged with felony murder, among other counts.

Clark, who is also a native of Commerce, had prior convictions on crimes like simple battery and aggravated assault, online court records show. He pleaded guilty in 2022 to multiple counts of making terroristic threats, a charge that often coincides with suspects who are suffering a mental health crisis, according to a fact sheet created by the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Credit: Henri Hollis /

Credit: Henri Hollis /

“I still don’t fully understand why he (Clark) did this, but it had nothing to do with gang initiation or anything like that,” Harmon said. “It’s very, very infrequent that we see anything like this.”

Dr. Sande Bailey-Gwinn, a pastor and founder of Foundations for Living, asked the community to support the families of both the victim and the suspect.

“We’re not going to take sides; we’re going to take over,” she said. “We’re going to take over any crazy, messy talk. If you are not the police, stop trying to investigate.”

Bailey-Gwinn also praised the Varnum and Clark families for “how they came together in harmony.”

“Had they not, it would have been more dangerous,” Bailey-Gwinn said. “But because of the true God that you serve ... y’all’s two families can walk this thing down in peace.”

Credit: Henri Hollis /

Credit: Henri Hollis /

In his emotional tribute to his older brother, Marshall Varnum reflected on how Calvin had left school at the age of 16 to work in a cotton mill after their mother’s death. Marshall, who is deaf, grew up wearing hearing aids but said he earned a basketball scholarship to college and graduated with Calvin’s support.

“As I’ve gotten older, things changed, and I had to take care of you,” Marshall said.

He thanked the community for looking out for Calvin as well. Marshall said he would often ask neighbors to check in on his brother or get reports from locals who saw Calvin out walking through town.

Nearly every speaker at Wednesday’s memorial held him up as an example of how an individual’s kindness can positively impact a community.

“He was not churched, but he was a Christian by the way he loved,” Bailey-Gwinn said. “I have come to the realization that Calvin was a light to the world, while some of us are small candles in a church.”