PEMBROKE, N.C. – Ronnie Collins recently flew cross country from his home in Fairfield, Calif., to his alma mater.
Collins made the 2,800-mile trip to The University of North Carolina at Pembroke after learning the university was honoring his former baseball coach – Dr. Raymond Pennington.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” said Collins, who played shortstop for the Braves from 1968 to 1970. “The list of people who affected my life is extensive, but at the top of that list is Coach Pennington. He taught me many things that it took to make me successful in life.”
Several of Pennington’s former players, close friends and family attended “Ray Pennington Day,” to honor a man who dedicated 40 years to UNCP 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.
Athletics Director Dick Christy ran through a litany of accomplishments during Pennington’s tenure, referring to him as one of the primary architects of the athletics program.
He crafted .781 winning-percentage while coaching baseball. The university won the Overall Excellence Award three out of the six years he served as athletics director.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” Christy said. “That was an unbelievable achievement. If the Jones Center is our nervous system, Ray Pennington is the heart of our program.”
Former pitcher Robert Hughes described “Coach P” as a disciplinarian.
“He was a model for us and he believed in discipline which is hard to find these days,” said Hughes, a Greensboro native. “He taught us life skills that we could use after baseball.”
Pennington, also a Greensboro product, came to UNCP in 1963 after a stellar career in baseball and football at East Carolina University. At Pembroke, Pennington also served as dean of students and chair of the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department.
UNCP teams won more than 20 conference and district championships during his tenure and he oversaw the school's transition from NAIA to NCAA status. Pennington retired in 2003 and later served six years on the Board of Trustees.
Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings served with Pennington on the Board of Trustees.
“From day one, he wore many hats and over the years put on even more hats in service of this university,” Cummings said. “His service to UNCP extended beyond his retirement. UNCP is in his blood; it was much more than a job.”
Pennington served one term on the Lumberton City Council and 24 years as mayor.
“In that position, he is credited with building bridges between this campus and the county seat,” Cummings said. “He understood the importance of the university reaching beyond the confines of campus to meet the needs throughout this county and region.”
Several former colleagues, including Chancellor Emeritus Joe Oxendine, made the trip to campus to recognize Pennington. Oxendine called him a “genuine leader” who welcomed him with open arms.
In a letter, former chancellor Allen Meadors described Pennington as a “gifted and caring higher education leader who always worked to improve our college's student experience. He did the same for the citizens of Lumberton,” he wrote.
“Ray's legacy will forever be a positive part of the UNCP story.”
The last to speak, Pennington, sporting a UNCP baseball cap, stepped to the podium, his eyes filled with tears. His children, Scott and Jeri, sat on the front row, beaming with pride.
“We should have done this a long time ago,” he said, drawing laughter from his admirers. “I love this place from the roots. This is special to me.”
He then asked his former players to stand.
“I am so glad you came back.
“This institution has made a name for itself over the years. When I came here people laughed behind our backs when we would go to district and regional meetings, promoting our programs.
“But it didn’t take but a few years for them to recognize The University of North Carolina at Pembroke as a true institution of higher learning and academic and athletic excellence.
“You need to be proud of your alma mater. Praise it. Promote it. And let people know that we are for real.”
With two firm fist pumps in the air, Pennington shouted “Go Braves!”