Geoffrey M. Tennant

Published 3:03 pm Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Making a difference in Polk County for over half a century

You would think someone turning 80 years old in a few months would have long retired by now.

Not so for Geoffrey M. Tennant.

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Not only is he the chief of the Tryon Fire Department, but he’s also chair of the Polk County Schools Board of Education.

And Geoffrey says he has no plans to retire anytime soon.

Just to listen to his involvement as a community servant tires me out, but to Chief Tennant, it’s what keeps him active and committed to Tryon and Polk County.

Geoffrey made it to Polk County from Virginia in 1960. At the time, he was on active duty with the United States Air Force. A couple of years later, his career with the Air Force was over and he went back to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to finish his bachelor’s degree.

His career path moved from airman and university student to serving in front of a classroom as a teacher at Tryon High School.

A career in education would be enough for any one person’s lifetime, but even as Geoffrey’s education job was in full swing, he was also serving with the Columbus Fire Department. He was elected chief of the Columbus department soon after he volunteered, and he served in this role for another 28 years.

Geoffrey did “retire” from the Columbus Fire Department, but retirement wasn’t on his agenda.

Geoffrey was immediately asked to come to Tryon and serve as battalion chief for the Tryon Fire Department. He accepted the job and, in 2016, was elevated to chief.

The role of fire department chief in a small town is a challenge. Geoffrey and James “Tank” Waters, the assistant fire chief, are the only paid members of the department.

In a big city, each firehouse would be staffed by a full complement of round-the-clock paid professionals. Tryon, and just about all small-town fire departments, rely on a small army of dedicated volunteers.

And while Geoffrey and Tank have set working hours of 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, they are always on call. Evenings, weekends, holidays don’t matter, and he’s never even considered asking for “comp time.” It’s not in Geoffrey’s vocabulary.

The Tryon Fire Department currently has 35 members on the roster, and all of them have had basic firefighter training, which requires a minimum of 36 hours for the basic training series. Members who want to receive a minuscule retirement from the state after 20 years on the department have to complete a minimum of another 36 hours of continuing training hours each year.

Many of the volunteers have gone beyond this and have extensive specialized training, such as hazardous materials handling and emergency medical technician training. Geoffrey is a certified advanced EMT and serves as a professional instructor in EMT training for the Tryon Fire Department.

Geoffrey went on to discuss some of the biggest challenges of leading a volunteer fire department.

“The budget is always an issue,” he says. “It takes money to offer first-class service day in and day out, and that’s expensive.”

When someone calls 911, they don’t want to worry about the budget. They are desperate for the help only the fire department can give, and Geoffrey wants to make sure they have the best service. Someone having the worst day of their life, watching their house consumed by fire, doesn’t care how much a new truck costs.

The Tryon Fire Department has two older trucks, which will soon age out of use. He’s constantly pressing the Polk County Fire & Rescue Advisory Commission and the Tryon Town Board of Commissioners to make sure new trucks are included in budget plans for the future of the town.

Other challenges include finding new firefighters. It takes someone special who is willing to make such a huge commitment of time and energy, plus put themselves in harm’s way with each call.

Over the years, it has also become more difficult for volunteers to be able to drop their paid job at the first call for help to be able to respond to a fire or other incident. The Tryon Fire Department averages over 1,000 calls a year, including fires, road accidents, medical emergencies and even an occasional cat-up-the-tree rescue.

Serving as Tryon Fire Department chief should be enough for any one person, but it would be impossible not to mention Geoffrey’s role on the Polk County Schools Board of Education.

Geoffrey was first elected to the board in 1992 and has been chair since 1996. He’s a natural, as he’s been in the trenches of education as a teacher, a coach and an administrator.

When asked which is harder, being a teacher or a firefighter, it didn’t take long for Geoffrey to say that each job has its own issues, but he thinks teaching these days is probably harder.

“There’s tremendous pressure on public school teachers in this day and time,” he says. “My heart goes out to people who teach!”

Geoffrey’s not so sure if he would go into teaching today if he were starting over, but he’s very satisfied and pleased that he had the honor of serving as a teacher. It was a rewarding experience.

Geoffrey says his desire to be a public servant goes back to a quote his dad used that stays with him to this day. Loosely stated, Geoffrey explained, his dad said, “To whom something is given, much is expected.”

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Geoffrey says. “I feel I have an obligation to pay back or pay forward. It is a way that when I leave this world, people will say, ‘At least he tried to make a difference.’”

It is obvious that Geoffrey Tennant is making a difference every day, and has been for over half a century.

A friend once told Geoffrey, “Do something as long as you are able. Do not retire!”

Polk County can be glad he listened. •

Mark Levin has recently retired from a career in education and, along the way, has had a lifetime of experiences, earning a buck as a photographer, videographer, author, musician and camp director. You can follow his blog about people and places in the Foothills at or on Facebook.