LUMBERTON — Raymond Pennington, a Hall of Famer at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and an institution in Lumberton where he served two decades as mayor, died Thursday at the age of 83.
Pennington, who had been in ill health for the past few years, had been living at Wesley Pines.
He was widely regarded as “Mr. Lumberton,” but built his career in Pembroke, at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
Pennington was born in Greensboro, said Scott Pennington, his son. He was married to Shirley Cook Pennington, who died in December 2014. They had two children: Scott and a daughter named Jeri.
“The family appreciates all the thoughts and prayers,” Scott said. “My father was very dedicated to Lumberton and Robeson County, and it was his pleasure to serve the people of Robeson County.”
Pennington served as Lumberton’s mayor from 1995 to 2015, when he did not seek re-election. Before that he served on the Lumberton City Council for four years.
While at UNCP, Pennington was director of athletics from 1984 to 1998. During his tenure Braves athletes were awarded All-America status 39 times, and UNCP teams won more than 20 conference and district championships. He also oversaw the school’s transition from NAIA to NCAA status, which culminated in 1992.
Pennington came to UNCP after serving two seasons as an assistant football coach at East Carolina University, his alma mater, in the early 1960s. He was a charter member of UNCP’s Braves Club who received his master’s degree from the University of North Carolina and completed his Ph.D. at Duke University.
In June 2017, “Ray Pennington Day” was held at UNCP to honor him for 40 years he spent at the university as a coach, professor, and athletic director. Inside the English E. Jones Center, event organizers unveiled the naming of the Dr. Raymond B. Pennington Baseball Locker Room.
More recently, the city of Lumberton renamed Northeast Park to Raymond B. Pennington Athletic Complex.
“Today UNC Pembroke lost one of its greatest supporters,” UNCP Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings said. “For more than 50 years, Ray Pennington exemplified a life and career centered on service to UNC Pembroke and his home county. His loss will leave a tremendous void.”
“He was a fine fellow,” Mayor Bruce Davis said. “He and I had served together for many years.”
Davis assumed the mantle of mayor in 2015, right after Pennington left the office.
“I thought the world of him,” Davis said. “You just couldn’t ask for a better guy than Ray Pennington.”
His children and Pennington’s children grew up together, Davis said.
“He was mayor when I came on, and I came in 2003,” City Manager Wayne Horne said.
Pennington was an exceptional leader with great management and leadership skills, Horne said. His leadership skills helped him win the respect of the city government’s staff and of City Council members.
“I put him in the top of the people for whom I have served,” Horne said.
Horne said residents could easily approach Pennington and speak with him about their concerns, their needs and about the city in general.
Erich Hackney, an investigator with the Robeson County District Attorney’s Office and a former city councilman, remembers Ray Pennington as someone who “was certainly in a unique class of exceptional people in this world.”
“To have been friends with him and work with him for the betterment of Lumberton was truly an honor and a privilege that will never be forgotten,” Hackney said.
Dan Kenney, a former basketball coach and director of athletics at UNCP, was hired as an assistant basketball coach by Pennington in 1977 and remembers him as an “ultimate servant leader.”
“He was my mentor, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without Ray,” Kenney said.
Kenney said Pennington treated him like a son.
“When I took over as athletic director, I had to learn a lot and I leaned on Ray a lot,” he said. “When we were working to get a football program started up, he was a great resource.”
With the countless reminders of Pennington’s legacy, which includes his name on the baseball facility in Lumberton, the UNCP baseball locker room and scholarships at the university, it was the memories that Pennington left that leave the biggest impression on Kenney.
“He was a really special person to a lot of people and I’m blessed to be one of them,” Kenney said. “He just had a way of believing in you when you didn’t believe in yourself. He was an icon in Robeson County.”
Funeral arrangements are not complete.
Ray Pennington sits in the Lumberton mayor’s office he occupied for 20 years. The former mayor, Lumberton City Council member, and coach, athletic director and professor at UNCP died Thursday at the age of 83.
Ray Pennington is shown at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s English E. Jones Center in June 2017 when the Dr. Raymond B. Pennington Baseball Locker Room, named in his honor, was unveiled. Pennington died Thursday at the age of 83.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sports Editor Jonathan Bym contributed to this report. Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.