LUMBERTON — Next to the mailbox at John Rancke’s home stands a black, metal hitching post. It’s where his grandfather, John D. McMillan, would tie his horse in the mornings, and Rancke uprooted it to plant in his front yard in Lumberton.
Being on the ready, horse and all, was part of McMillan’s job, as Rancke’s grandfather was a doctor.
“What I started out wanting to be was a physician,” Rancke said. “I took pre-med in the 1940s, but I had the draft looking over my shoulder. When I turned 18, I went to Fort Bragg and in March, when I got out, I realized I would have to start all over again with school.”
This is how Rancke, 86, began his long career as a pharmacist, which spans 62 years — just two years longer than he’s been married to his wife Bonnie, affectionately known as “Bunky.”
“It’s been so long,” he said of working in the profession, “I guess I don’t know when to stop.”
His first job was at the drug store his family owned, which his grandfather opened. McMillan’s Drugstore opened at 315 N. Elm St. in 1880 and closed in 1957.
That’s where he met Tom Gavin, a man whom Rancke calls “one of the finest” he ever met. Gavin was a black man who delivered medication on his bike for his family’s drug store.
“Every store delivered in those days,” he said.
Visibly moved, he added, “He was part of the family.”
From horses to cars, and independent pharmacies to chains, Rancke has seen much change during the years.
“Hospitals didn’t have pharmacies then,” he said. “When I first started, if a person had meningitis or pneumonia, you really had to worry about them, because that was deadly. When I first started, the only anti-infectives we had were sulfur and injected penicillin. Today, it can be treated.”
Despite the advances in medicine, Rancke feels the industry has taken a step backward in terms of personable service.
“There are still independent pharmacies, but chains have taken over,” he said. “It used to be that you had a personal relationship with the patient, you knew them, knew their family, what they were taking and who their doctors were.”
Rancke went down that road briefly, working at a chain, but prefers the smaller independents.
Today, he works once a week as a relief pharmacist at the Medical Arts Pharmacy at 1550 Godwin Ave. There, he has worked alongside Lori Baucom for 10 years. Baucom, a technician, has been in and out of the pharmacy all of her life. Her parents are the owners.
“It’s been my experience that over the years, people will come to the pharmacy and ask the pharmacists things they couldn’t think to ask the doctor,” she said. “There is a personal relationship we develop with the customers, one-on-one.”
On the topic of personable relationships, Baucom says Rancke hands out more than medicine.
“Customers think the world of him; he is so well known,” Baucom said. “He is an institution around here as far as being a pharmacist goes. He is very well-liked and he is very well-respected.”
Eighty-four-year-old Ruth Pate Mayers has known Rancke since the two were students at Lumberton Senior High School. He is her friend and her pharmacist.
“He’s always laughing and talking,” Mayers said. “John is an unusually nice person. We always speak and chat a little bit when we see each other.”
Rancke has lived in Lumberton all his life except when he went to school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — he famously follows the Tar Heel athletic teams — and when he went away to the service. His many experiences over his long career include serving four generations of one family.
“I helped the father, his son, the son’s daughter and the daughter’s child,” he said. “Four generations is about as far as I can go.”
Pausing for a moment, he adds with a laugh, “I don’t think I’m going to shoot for five.”
The father of three children and as many grandchildren, including one who is a pharmacist, Rancke’s wit is as sharp as his appearance.
“I’m well-preserved,” he said sarcastically. “I joke that I soak myself in brine.”