Pennington led from both sides of Interstate 95

Raymond “Ray” Benjamin Pennington arrived in Robeson County more than a half century ago and made it his home, for his wife Shirley, and their two young children, Jeri and Scott. We don’t know if Pennington knew then that it would be his home until his death, which came last week at the age of 83, but we can say with certainty that it was to the benefit of the county and its residents — especially those in Lumberton and Pembroke — that things worked out that way.

Pennington, who would earn the moniker “Mr. Lumberton” through his civic and political work as a determined Democrat, served one term on the City Council and was elected and then re-elected four times as the city’s mayor, leaving City Hall after 24 years by his own choice and only when his health began to fail him. Northeast Park, the recreation facility that played host to the Dixie Youth World Series and is a shining example of what a community can achieve when people have a vision and won’t back down, is named in his honor.

Pennington’s nature, warm and welcoming, belied the imposing figure that he cut — a tall, muscular man who was an outstanding athlete in high school and at East Carolina University. He was a man’s man, if you will, one who enjoyed a round of golf and the requisite revelry that followed. We have heard repeatedly since his death about how he was approachable as an elected official, always willing to give a person a hearing and then do what could be done.

What strikes us about Pennington is that while his family and political life played out on the east side of Interstate 95, his professional life was anchored firmly on the west side. We find that instructive during these tough times, when the interstate is often an artificially imposed battle line that divides this county and condemns us to being less than we could be.

Pennington in the early 1960s took a leap of faith, answering Chancellor Dr. English Jones’ call and leaving a football coaching job at ECU to move his family and future to Pembroke, where he went to work at what was then Pembroke State College, an institution established for and largely populated with American Indians. It is important to remember the United States as it was then, still stuck in Jim Crow, and on the eve of the Civil Rights movement. Pennington, clearly, was out front on that.

During parts of the next five decades, Pennington coached baseball and golf at Pembroke State, worked as its athletic director and, after retiring, served as a trustee. Importantly, he persuaded the late Lacey Gane, whom he had coached high school basketball against in Greensboro, to also take a leap of faith and join him in Pembroke and the rest, as they say, is history.

The two were a dynamic force in transitioning the institution from NAIA to NCAA status — and the Braves today consistently put teams on the field that make their fans proud.

It would be an omission to dismiss Pennington’s academic side; early in his career he returned to school and earned two degrees, one from UNC and the other from Duke University, putting a Dr. in front of his name, and then working as a professor in the P.E. Department.

We are sure that Pennington leaves us with an immense sense of pride as one of the chief architects of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, which is growing in every positive way possible, including its number of students and the quality of education that they can receive.

Pennington was clearly a transformative figure, a white man not from here, who believed not only in Pembroke State College, but in the good people he found there. To the degree it is possible, he was colorblind, making and maintaining friendships with people of all stripes. Loyal he always was.

Pennington understood better than most that when it came to Pembroke and Lumberton, it isn’t an either-or proposition, but what really mattered is the us. It is that spirit of cooperation, the reaching across the aisle, that is so badly needed today in this county.

Pennington’s work here is done — but of the many gifts that he left, perhaps the greatest was showing that people of all colors, pedestals and pedigree should be able to work together for the greater good.