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THE KIRBY FILE | Bill Kirby Jr.

THE KIRBY FILE: Tryon Lancaster always had time to teach, preach … and listen

'He was the person who knew everyone's life story,' a daughter says about her father, who was an educator for more than 30 years with Cumberland County Schools. 'He had the ability to connect with people everywhere he went. He knew how to listen and how to offer an encouraging word.'


When it came to caring about students and teachers in Cumberland County, Tryon Lancaster left his mark a thousandfold and beyond.

He was an educator.

When it came to caring about the triumphs, the trials, the troubles and the tribulations of people in this community and sharing the Word of God, Tryon Lancaster left his mark, too.

He was a lay minister.

Tryon Lancaster, the Rev. Carl King would remind those who gathered at Haymount United Methodist Church on Jan. 27 to remember and celebrate Tryon Lancaster’s life, was “God’s good harvest” in this community.

He was old school.

He always was there for others — a young and budding Cumberland School teacher a touch unsure of himself or herself in the classroom; a family with a loved one lost; or to share in the happiness of a couple heading down the wedding aisle with their dreams of tomorrows to come.  

No hour was too early if you needed him. No hour too late.

“He encouraged and listened to people,” Sarah Lancaster said in her father’s eulogy. “He loved to talk. He loved to ask questions to learn who you were. He was the person who knew everyone's life story. He had the ability to connect with people everywhere he went. He knew how to listen and how to offer an encouraging word.”

Life in Massey Hill and Lakedale

He came from humble beginning, growing up one of six children born to James and Elizabeth Lancaster in the Massey Hill and Lakedale mill village communities, where “Mr. Jim” and “Mrs. Lizzie” ran Lancaster’s grocery store.

“Tryon grew up here in Cumberland County and ‘the great metropolis’ of Massey Hill throughout his childhood,” King said. “In the ‘30s and the ‘40s, the communal life of Massey hill revolved around three different institutions.”

The grocery store, the preacher said, church and Massey Hill School.

“Tryon’s life revolved around the grocery store,” King said. “There was only one in town. Tryon’s father owned it, which meant that Tryon was there every day stocking shelves, sweeping floors and delivering groceries as soon as he was big enough to walk down the block alone.

“Growing up in that store, I imagine, it must have given Tryon his tremendous work ethic, because he never stopped. It probably also shaped his character. Being the only store in town, it also was sort of the watering hole. The one gathering place for the whole community, so daily, neighbors were sitting out front or stopping by always sharing news or sharing gossip and telling stories.

“Maybe that's where Tryon learned the maxim he lived by,” King said. “That store only had one phone, and the whole town considered it theirs. So, neighbors came by all the time.”

Tryon Lancaster was age 7 when World War II began, the preacher said, and age 11 when WWII ended.

“How many friends and neighbors must he have seen come to use that phone to share their highest hopes and to learn shattering news?” King said. “I have a feeling very early on Tryon learned how precarious life can be and seeing the whole world and all of Massey Hill come by that store every day. I have no doubt that's where he began to accept and respect everyone he met. No matter their status or station, his love and appreciation was genuine.”

Victory United Methodist Church, the preacher said, was the “second institution” that shaped Tryon Lancaster’s life.

“You were always in church on Sundays and the good number of the days in between,” King said. “And in church, Tryon met his two greatest loves, Jesus and Anne.”

Tryon thought Anne Denton was “the prettiest girl he'd ever seen,” the preacher said, reminding us that she caught his eye when filling in for the pianist at what was nearby Calvary Church. “She looked like an angel.”

They would court one another through his time at Louisburg College and East Carolina University and during his Army military service.

“He was drafted in the ‘50s and spent two years in Germany,” the preacher said. “He proposed over a letter, and through a letter this proposal was accepted. When he returned to the states, they were married and settled down, and Tryon began the work at the ‘third institution’ that shaped his life.”

‘An incredible educator’

He first taught at Cedar Creek School from to 1956 to 1957 before becoming the school principal from 1959 to 1961. He was principal at Mary McArthur Elementary from 1961 to 1966; principal at Massey Hill Elementary from 1966 to 1968; and principal at College Lakes Elementary from 1969 to 1970. He was supervisor of Elementary Education from 1970 to 1972; assistant superintendent of Cumberland County Schools from 1972 to 1979; assistant superintendent of Elementary Education from 1979 to 1984; associate superintendent from 1984 to 1989; and associate superintendent of Elementary Education from 1989 until his retirement on Aug. 31, 1991.

Tryon Lancaster left an indelible mark on Cumberland County Schools.

“Dr. Lancaster was an incredible educator,” Bill Harrison, the retired superintendent of Cumberland County Schools, says. “The number of students, teachers and others who he impacted are beyond measure. I first met him when he spoke to a seminar when I was student teaching in 1974. I sensed that day he was special, and he had an influence on me from that day forward. I also had the opportunity to see him as the wonderful father he was. I taught his daughter, Paige, physical education when she was in the 5th grade, and sons Del and Jamie were students during my time at Terry Sanford High School.”

Allison Violette, retired director of curriculum and instruction for Cumberland County Schools, says Lancaster influenced her life long before she thought about following in the footsteps of her mother as an educator.

“I knew him first as the kind and thoughtful father of a dear friend growing up,” Violette said. “It was always a treat to be at their house. I knew I would be surrounded by gracious hospitality, good food and, of course, many smiles and laughter. I even remember a fun week of Vacation Bible school with the family at Victory United Methodist Church. It was this gracious and selfless nature I continued to witness as a beginning teacher.

“As a leader, he set a standard of serving others, always caring, ready to hear how things were going in your life. He never seemed too busy to listen, nodding and smiling, as he offered words of encouragement. He was definitely a servant leader, building others up and supporting their educational journey. This standard would be his legacy in countless young educators like myself. 

“His reach and influence continue today through his children and grandchildren who have chosen to follow in his footsteps as public educators,” Violette said. “What an amazing and impactful legacy.”

After Lancaster retired, he worked at the School of Education and Office of Church Affairs at Methodist University, while also serving as lay minister at Saint Matthews United Methodist Church and for 21 years at Wesley Heights United Methodist Church.


“He stayed in touch with former students throughout his lifetime,” Sarah Lancaster would remind those who filled the Haymount United Methodist Church sanctuary from front to back, and so many of them retired educators. “There's a testament to that today. He loved the Lord. He loved the church. He loved teaching and loved preaching, and he loved his family.”

Tryon Delano Lancaster died Jan. 23.

He was 89.

He was an educator.

He was an apostle of the Bible’s word.

“Tryon Lancaster was God’s good harvest,” the Rev. King said, “and as he would always say, ‘To God be the glory.’”

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

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