Polk Co. community says goodbye to beloved fire chief

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POLK CO., N.C. (WSPA) — Polk County said goodbye Tuesday night to a man many in the community called “Big Chief.”

The death of Geoffrey Tennant was described by friends as a “huge void” being felt even across county lines.

Tennant served Polk County for more than 50 years as a fire chief, school board chairman, teacher, coach, and mentor to many.

Tuesday, hundreds packed the auditorium at Polk County High School to tell stories and pay tribute to Tennant during a public funeral.

Aaron Greene, superintendent of Polk Co. schools, said he knew Tennant for over two decades.

“Mr. Tennant was getting up in years but he was a vibrant man, always out there doing things, ya know, the first one to the calls, so no we did not expect it to happen,” said Greene of Tennant’s sudden death Friday following a brief illness.

Greene said Tennant lived his life with a giving spirit.

“Every moment, every waking hour was spent to better other people’s existence,” Greene said.  

Whether he was saving lives as a first responder, as a fire chief, making decisions for children as chairman of the school board, or many years spent as a teacher and coach, Tennant’s impact was far reaching.

“50 years. That’s three generations of people, thousands of lives that he’s impacted,” said Greene.

Greene said one of Tennant’s greatest contributions has been his scholarship fund that’s helped send student in Polk County to college.

Then, there were smaller gestures.

“So that kids didn’t have to worry about their income or didn’t have to worry about I can’t afford this pair of cleats for this athletic team or I can’t afford to go to this academic camp. All that stuff was just taken care of,” said Greene.

The community is now left to take care of each other, with the passing of a man known around the schools as “Mr. Wolverine” and around the area fire stations as “Big Chief.”

Assistant Fire Chief James “Tank” Waters was one of several speakers at the funeral.

“Big Chief and I go way back…he is my ride or die,” said Waters. 

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

Tennant is survived by his wife of 50 years, Anne, and their son.

The Town of Tryon has asked for continues prayers for the entire Tennant family.

Read more on Tennant’s life in this excerpt from his obituary:

“Mr. Tennant made his way to Polk County in 1960 from Virginia where he was on active duty with the United States Air Force. After completing two more years of service in the USAF Tennant returned to Chapel Hill to finish his bachelor’s degree. In 1966, he began a career as an educator at Tryon High School, where he taught social sciences and physical education, also serving as a guidance counselor. Tennant coached football, basketball, golf, and served as Tryon’s athletic director for many years, a role he continued to fill when the Tryon City and Polk County schools districts merged.

After leaving the classroom and sidelines he was elected as a Polk County Commissioner, and later as a member of the Polk County Board of Education in 1992. Tennant became chair of the Board in 1996 and served in that role until his death. He represented the interests of all public educators, students, and athletes serving for years on the executive boards of both the North Carolina State Board of Education and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
Following years of philanthropic support of students, schools, athletes, and many community organizations Mr. Tennant and his mother Ann L. Turner created the Ann L. Turner and Geoffrey M. Tennant Foundation. This foundation has continued to award numerous grants and scholarships to students and school programs for many years. He and his wife Alice Tennant were involved in the establishment of Super Saturday, and the Turner-Tennant Foundation has provided funding and support for the event ever since.

Deeply committed to the health and safety of his community, Mr. Tennant initially volunteered with the Columbus Fire Department, later becoming chief and occupying that role for 28 years. He also served the public as a Polk County EMS and Rescue Squad member for more than twenty years and Director of Polk County Communications. After retiring from Columbus FD, he joined the Tryon Fire Department as a battalion chief and was elevated to chief in 2016.

In 2010 Mr. Tennant received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest civilian honor in North Carolina. Polk County Schools honored Tennant in 2016 for his lifetime of service to students and schools by renaming the athletic complex at Polk County High School as G.M. Tennant Stadium.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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