A man who can never be rivaled

Published 11:06 pm Monday, July 22, 2019

Community mourns loss of a “true hero” 

TRYON—Tryon Fire Chief and Polk County School Board Chairman Geoffrey Tennant once said he was very fortunate in his life and felt he had an obligation to pay it back or pay it forward.

“It is a way that when I leave this world, people will say, ‘at least he tried to make a difference,’” Tennant said earlier this year. 

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And what a difference he made. 

Tennant, 79, died Friday night after a sudden illness and immediately, the community rallied to honor and remember him. Thousands took to Facebook after hearing the news to honor Tennant and a parade of 30 emergency vehicles escorted his body late Saturday night, with hundreds of residents lining the streets to welcome him home. 

There will likely never be another man who gave more to Polk County over his almost 60 years here, whether it was through his time, his intellect, his skills or his philanthropy. 

Polk County Schools Superintendent Aaron Greene said there is no way to adequately express the respect and admiration he has for Mr. Tennant. 

“We have lost our guardian angel, our mentor, our teacher, our coach, our friend,” Greene said. “None of us will ever fully realize the true amount of good that Mr. Tennant has done. He changed so many lives in so many ways.” 

Tryon Town Manager Zach Ollis said it is hard to explain how devastating this loss is for Tryon, Polk County and the state of North Carolina. 

“Chief Tennant was everything a hero should be,” Ollis said. “He was a natural born leader, a courageous soul and a man of the highest integrity. He taught us dedication, patience, selflessness and kindness on a daily basis.” 

Ollis said he will miss many things about Tennant, but he will remember so much more. 

“I’ll miss many things about the man, but I will remember so much more,” Ollis said. “Most importantly, I’ll always remember the fact that the only call he didn’t answer was his own. He was a mountain of a man that will never be rivaled.” 

Education career

Tennant’s career spanned almost 53 years in Polk County through education and fire service, with him first being a teacher and coach at Tryon High School beginning in 1966. 

He first came to Polk County from Virginia in 1960 and at the time, was on active duty with the United States Air Force. Once his Air Force career was over, he went back to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to finish his degree. 

At Tryon High School, he touched thousands of students by teaching social sciences, physical education and being a guidance counselor. Tennant was also a coach and may mostly be remembered as the school’s golf coach, or even more remembered for wearing his wild golf pants. He also coached football, basketball and served as Tryon’s athletic director. 

Tennant was instrumental in the merging of Tryon and Polk Central High Schools, which occurred in 1992. Tennant was a Polk County Commissioner and in 1992 was first elected to the Polk County Board of Education. Tennant served as chairman of the school board from 1996 until his death. 

“A champion for education, Mr. Tennant’s work in education spans more than 50 years,” Greene said. “He always exhibited strong belief in young people and their promise to create a brighter future. Mr. Tennant’s efforts as a professional educator, leadership on the board of education and overwhelming philanthropic spirit has made an immeasurable impact on the youth and families of Polk County.

“There are many stories from former students, colleagues, and community members about how much his guidance, encouragement, and support affected them. Polk County Schools will be forever indebted to Mr. Tennant, for all he has done, all he has meant to us, and for all he represents.”

The Polk County High School football stadium is rightfully named after Tennant, as he called football games since the beginning of the merged Polk County High School. He was known for his big vocabulary while commentating the games and always ended the night by saying, “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” 

Public service

Tennant volunteered for the Columbus Fire Department shortly after his arrival in Polk County. He served as the Columbus Fire Department Chief for 28 years prior to “retiring.” 

Tennant also volunteered with the Polk County EMS and Polk County Rescue Squad for more than 20 years. 

Since it just was not in him to retire, Tennant joined the Tryon Fire Department as a battalion chief and served from 2016 until his death as the department’s chief. 

Polk County Emergency Services Director and Fire Marshal Bobby Arledge worked with Tennant for 26 years. Arledge said Tennant was a leader, mentor, dedicated public servant and a man that loved his family. Arledge said he spent his entire career looking up to Tennant. 

“We have been on every type of emergency you can think of,” Arledge said. “We have been on short ones, all day long ones and multiple day emergencies. He was always there and if we needed something he made sure we got it. It’s hard to put into words what this man meant to Polk County.” 

Arledge said the year Tennant retired as chief of Columbus he was appointed to replace him. 

“He really didn’t retire,” Arledge said. “He was there every day making sure I was doing okay and to see if I needed anything. Without his guidance and advice, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He was the type of person who would do anything for you. He did what he loved and never looked for any type of recognition. Polk County was blessed to have him as part of our community. We have lost a true hero and will forever be grateful for his service.” 

Tryon Police Chief Jeff Arrowood said he knew Tennant for many years, but when he started working for Tryon he became more than just a co-worker. 

“I saw his passion for helping people many times, not only professionally, but personally for my family,” Arrowood said. “Polk County has lost a great man who dedicated his life to the service of others. Chief will be greatly missed by all of us at the police department.” 

James “Tank” Waters said “Big Chief” was his first and last chief. Waters started in fire service 24 years ago and said it was an honor to serve under Tennant throughout his career. 

“Big Chief was my mentor, but more importantly my friend,” Waters said. He was truly dedicated to the citizens in which he served. I am a better fireman because of his leadership and there is now a void that will never be filled because he is no longer with us. 

“I will take it from here, Big Chief, and I promise to make you proud.” 


Tennant did not just give of his time, but is credited for his philanthropic efforts as well. Tennant and his mother created the Ann L. Turner and Geoffrey M. Tennant Foundation, which has given out numerous grants and scholarships to students and educational programs for many years. Tennant and his wife, Alice, were heavily involved in starting Super Saturday, the annual children’s festival in Tryon, with the Turner-Tennant Foundation continuing to provide funding for the event every year. 

Tennant was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2010, which is the highest civilian honor in the state of North Carolina. 

Polk County School Board member Sherry Horne Page, who will take over as chair, said Tennant was the true definition of philanthropy. 

“He always put others before himself,” Page said. “He left this world better than he found it. I feel I am a better person by crossing paths with Geoff. Geoff left his imprint on Polk County forever. What a better way than to leave better than you found it. He impacted kids, teachers, families, co-workers, board of education members…He did it all.” 

Tryon Mayor Alan Peoples said he has searched in vain to find the right words to describe how he felt about Tennant, having worked with Tennant as educators, coaches and community helpers since the early 1980s. 

“I can honestly say that Geoff fulfilled the words of President John F. Kennedy better than anyone I have ever known,” Peoples said. “Geoff personified JFK’s immortal words, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.’” 

Polk County Manager Marche Pittman said he worked with Tennant all hours of the day and night during his years working for the county. 

“In all those interactions, I can’t remember one time when he sought or asked for recognition,” Pittman said. “This is the true mark of a hero. To live your life daily for others, asking nothing in return. Geoff was a hero to our citizens, children and the overall community. Polk County has lost a hero today and will be forever changed as a result.” 

Greene said Tennant maintained an unwavering commitment to better the existence of others. 

“His legacy resides in the thousands of people and lives he touched in such positive and meaningful ways,” Greene said. “What an example for us all to follow. What an incredibly important life we should embrace, we should remember and to which we should all aspire. What a truly great man. Rest in peace, Geoffrey Tennant.”