Losing a true Tryon gentleman

Published 10:40 am Tuesday, December 17, 2019

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Community mourns the loss of historian James Payne

TRYON—Whether you remember him for his classy suits and brimmed hats, his stories, his rides, his love of Tryon or his kindness, most people will agree they just don’t make people like James Payne anymore. 

Payne died Thursday morning. He was 91.

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Payne not only remembered Tryon in the old days, he was one of Tryon’s biggest fans. The local historian often had people gathered around him to hear his tales of the olden days. His great grandmother came to Tryon from a slave plantation in Columbia, S.C. and bought property in the area in the late 1800s. 

Payne lived through segregation and would talk about growing up in hard times, but he was always thankful for his opportunities. He took over his dad’s business and spent his life running James Payne’s Taxi Service until his retirement just five years ago. 

Payne passed his business on to Shawn Miller in 2014. Miller said many of Payne’s regular clients he still picks up and they talk about Payne’s knowledge of the history of Tryon and his kindness. Miller said one lady once left her suitcase at the train station and Payne drove it all the way to New York to return it to her. 

“He was like a father to me,” Miller said. “Mr. Payne taught me about life, how to treat people and to be on time.” 

Miller said he will always be thankful for the Paynes for blessing him the business. 

“I’m going to miss Mr. Payne, seeing him in town in his brim hat and talking to him,” Miller said. “They will always be loved and remembered.” 

Payne’s friend Andy Millard said he spent a lot of time with Payne in the last few weeks. 

“He was always the gracious and grateful gentleman,” Millard said. “He always talked about his love of life and his love for Tryon.” 

Payne told Millard recently that he’s had a good life and this town has been good to him. 

“He spoke with respect about everyone,” Millard said. “His quiet dignity asked for nothing, yet commanded affection and respect.” 

Former Tryon Commissioner George Baker said the day Payne called him up and said ‘my friend George,’ was a day he will never forget. 

“James Payne was the most amazing man I ever met in my life,” Baker said. “He was truly a man’s man. A gentleman.”

Speaking of the first day Payne ever called him his friend, Baker said that just struck him. 

“The hair rose on my arms,” Baker said. “That’s how much I thought of him. He was one of a kind.”

Friend Mary Prioleau said Payne was one of the first friends she found when she moved to Tryon. 

“Our interactions often lifted my spirit and surely contributed to my love of this community,” Prioleau said. “Over the past few months it has been an honor and privilege to interact with him, his beautiful, kind, behind the scenes, driving force wife Verlee and their sweet daughter, Valerie, on a daily basis. The 71-year love story of Verlee and James exceeds heartwarming and is everything that makes life beautiful.”

Prioleau said James and Verlee’s dedication to one another and the love he expressed to her through his last breath alongside of their dedication to their daughter exemplifies the true value of family. 

“James Payne and his family set standards we should all aspire to emulate…or be so lucky to achieve. What a fantastic life lived!”

Tryon Town Manager Zach Ollis said losing Payne is history for this town. Ollis said Payne was one of the first people he met in Tryon and he knew from the moment he met him that Payne was going to be an important part of everything Ollis did for the town. 

“He taught me more about Tryon than anyone else,” Ollis said. “But, he also taught me more about life than he did about anything. He was just larger than life in every aspect. It was a real privilege and honor to actually get to meet someone of his character and stature. You don’t meet people like that anymore.”

Former Tryon Commissioner Warren Carson said this community has lost a real gem in the passing of Payne. 

“He was a friend to all and Tryon’s chief cheerleader,” Carson said. “I will miss him.” 

Tryon Commissioner Chrelle Booker said Payne was polite and a gentleman and he always made a point to speak to her and never failed to ask about the wellbeing of her dad. 

“On a recent and particularly rare occasion, Mr. Payne followed up his usual brief conversation by pouring out of his soul, words of wisdom and a personal plan, a gift from him to me, on how to navigate this world I live in,” Booker said. “I am forever grateful to have known this man made in the image of God. Mrs. Payne, Valerie and loved ones, Mr. Payne will be missed. However, know that he will never be forgotten.” 

Payne’s father started his transportation business when Payne was about 8 years old. Payne worked 7 days a week and said he never took time off because “you have to eat and sleep your business,” he said.  

He once said his hero was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. because he wanted to make things right and did it non-violently. 

“He always stood his ground for justice,” Payne said in a 2013 interview by Millard, “not just for black people, for mankind. For everybody. That’s powerful. Powerful.” 

Payne also said that he worked hard to live his life like he wanted to be treated. 

“Try to go through life doing the right thing and to help people along the way because I’ve had a lot of help. Be patient, be kind and love people. And get along.” 

Services will be held for Payne on Thursday, Dec. 19 at Garrison Chapel Baptist Church, located at 416 Markham Road, Tryon. Viewing will begin at noon with the service at 1 p.m. 

In lieu of flowers, people can send contributions to the Town of Tryon, 301 North Trade Street, Tryon, N.C. 28782 for a memorial in Payne’s honor at Roger’s Park. A celebration of his life is being planned at Roger’s Park sometime in the spring of 2020.