At 83, Plexico says second stop at Union will be his last
Published 12:00 am Friday, January 6, 2012
SALISBURY — Before we head to the church office for a talk, the Rev. Thurmond C. “T.C.” Plexico stops for a moment on the covered walkway leading from the Union Lutheran sanctuary.
As he looks across the expansive church cemetery and marvels at the sizable acreage owned by Union Lutheran — the Old Pine Church — he knows that one day he and his wife, Mary, will be buried just steps from here.
And it only seems right.
“This is where life really began,” Plexico says.
Sixty years earlier, Union took a chance on Plexico, a fresh-faced graduate of Lutheran Theological Seminary. The congregation made him its pastor.
He would serve for almost three years, leading Union through an important building program, one that included the front tower.
Fast forward to present day.
When Union Lutheran needed an interim pastor in 2011, the congregation called on Plexico again. Driving from Concord, he logged 12,000 miles on his car over the 11 months he served Union Lutheran as its interim, and “I don’t regret any of them,” he says.
“I felt as much of the Spirit’s call this time as I did in 1951.”
Now 83, Plexico says Union represents his final interim post. He will serve as a supply pastor on Sundays at churches here and there, but this truly will be his last call.
Again, it only seems right.
With Union as its bookends, Plexico’s career as a Lutheran minister made him a mission builder, sought-after speaker, radio personality, newspaper columnist, N.C. Synod leader and national delegate.
But most important, he was a pastor, preaching the Gospel every Sunday without notes or manuscript, visiting the sick, overseeing daily church business and conducting countless weddings, baptisms and funerals.
“I told him he was a much better preacher now, but that’s what happens with age,” lifelong Union Church member Ann B. Tucker says, chuckling.
Tucker was a young girl when Plexico served as Union pastor the first time. She even sang in the junior choir at Plexico’s wedding in 1952.
As interim pastor over the past year, Tucker says, Plexico cared for everyone in his congregation and constantly visited members who were homebound or hospitalized.
“He’s done more than a full-time job as our part-time minister,” Tucker says.
A man with a rich baritone voice, Plexico always made music a cornerstone of his ministry. It seems appropriate that he has bequeathed his most cherished, handmade vestments to Tonya Brittain, Union’s music director who will soon be an ordained Lutheran minister herself.
Plexico is a voracious reader of newspapers, magazines, novels and poetry.
His sermons — he loves to preach — percolate for weeks in his head but always hold fast to Scripture and lessons. The Gospel is for all people, he says.
“He preaches longer than a lot of these younger preachers,” Union member Zarah Plyler says. “I could listen to him for hours. He doesn’t even use notes. He’s good in the pulpit,”
During his most recent stint at Union Lutheran — his last official day was Dec. 31 — a fellow approached him one Sunday and said, “you baptized me 60 years ago.”
A couple from Virginia who were visiting the church reminded Plexico that he had married them in the old parsonage across the road six decades earlier.
Tucker remembers the young preacher — before he was married — stopping in at her parents’ home and asking her father what he was making for supper.
It ended up, of course, in his staying for potato soup, cornbread and an evening of conversation. “He was just a down-home person,” Tucker says.
Her father oversaw the wiring of the steeple during Plexico’s first stay at Union, and Tucker recalls how the pastor worked on the roof alongside the other Union Lutheran men.
Through the years, the Union congregation delighted when Plexico stopped in as a supply pastor. And whenever he was Union’s full-time or interim pastor, Tucker says, he gave the congregation 150 percent of his effort.
“He has been God’s instrument,” she says.
Plexico knew from the time he was a young boy that God and the church were his calling. He looked up at his mother in church one day and told her he was going to be a pastor when he grew up.
“I was never attracted to any other way of life,” he says.
Plexico mostly grew up in Columbia, S.C., until his family moved to North Carolina during his high school years. He finished high school in North Wilkesboro when high school only extended to the 11th grade.
He then attended Lenoir-Rhyne College, finishing in three years, before heading back to Columbia and the Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Even though he was quite young when he first came to Union Lutheran, Plexico already had gained considerable experience, preaching at Ebenezer Lutheran in Columbia and serving five months at St. Andrews Lutheran in Charleston.
As he was finishing seminary studies, all signs pointed to his returning to St. Andrews, whose congregation was asking for him. But Dr. F.L. Conrad, president of the N.C. Synod, visited him at school and told Plexico he was needed to fill one of 12 to 15 vacancies in his state.
Compared to the city churches Plexico was accustomed to, Union Lutheran on Bringle Ferry Road was quite country.
“But there was a feeling of attraction here,” he says. “I thought maybe this was something the Lord really intended for me to do. I loved it.”
The congregation loved him, too. His service at Union Lutheran also became the time period during which he cemented his relationship with Mary, a Catawba College graduate and young organist from Grace Lutheran in Concord.
They met in August 1951, were engaged by that December and married in July 1952.
When the Synod convention was held in Salisbury in 1952, Plexico had the opportunity to interview Dr. Franklin Clark Frye — “Mr. Protestant” and president of the United Lutheran Church of America.
“He was a powerful gentleman,” Plexico says, still looking back on the opportunity with appreciation.
One day in 1953, Conrad, the Synod president, spoke to Plexico again.
“He said, ‘Plexico, let’s plow the pasture,’ and that meant let’s meet out at McCanless Golf Course,” Plexico recalls.
On the ninth hole, Conrad broached the idea of sending Plexico to Jacksonville, where Conrad wanted him to set up a dual ministry in what he considered the most promising mission field in the South.
When Plexico balked at the idea of leaving Union Lutheran, Conrad, who liked to say “Piffle” when he missed a golf shot, responded that Union was a well-established church, “and they’ll get over it.”
So Mary and T.C. went to develop a ministry service center for the men stationed at Camp Lejeune, while also establishing a Lutheran church in Jacksonville.
The Service Center connected with Camp Lejeune became the largest Lutheran program in the United States, serving more than 2,500 members over 10 years.
As for his new church, Plexico first held services in an American Legion hall. The young congregation then built its first church.
“It was a great experience, being there,” Plexico says of Jacksonville.
In 1963, Plexico became pastor at St. James Church in Concord, succeeding Dr. George Whittecar, who was becoming the new president of the N.C. Synod.
He served St. James for 25 years. Toward the end of his tenure at St. James, the Synod asked Plexico to serve as vice pastor of St. Martin Church in Cabarrus County.
Membership at the old church had dwindled to 12 people.
So instead of retiring as planned in 1988, Plexico became full-time pastor at St. Martin. Over eight years, the church successfully emerged from two building programs without debt and started a fund for a new sanctuary, which was completed after Plexico’s retirement in 1997.
But Plexico wasn’t done. Counting Union, he served as interim pastor for five more Lutheran congregations.
He also continued to be widely in demand as a supply pastor throughout the state.
You might remember Plexico as a regular guest columnist for the Salisbury Post. His column ran under the heading, “Stories of Beloved Hymns.”
Plexico also had a weekly half-hour radio program on WSAT in Salisbury that reviewed world and local news on Saturday mornings.
In Lutheran circles, Plexico preached more than 40 preaching missions up and down the East Coast.
In 1965, he preached the baccalaureate sermon for Lenoir-Rhyne University, and he has served as chaplain and preacher for the national music-worship conference at Lutheridge.
Plexico also served three years as one of 15 delegates representing the Lutheran Church in America to the Lutheran Council-USA. In the last year of that stint, he served as chaplain and preacher for the national gathering of Lutheran lay and clergy leaders, including the presidents of all Lutheran denominations existing at that time.
In the community, Plexico has been a district governor of Rotary International, a council president of Boy Scouts and president of local United Way and American Red Cross boards.
Plexico estimates that he has given 1,600 some speeches to civic and religious gatherings — from Washington, D.C., to Puerto Rico.
He is listed in Who’s Who in Religion in America and, in 2003, received the Benjamin Bedenbaugh Award for Distinguished Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary.
Mary and T.C. Plexico lived for a long time in a historic house in Concord, but they moved about four years ago to a retirement community.
The couple have a son, Byron, who lives with his wife, Ginger, in Indianapolis, Ind. Byron serves as concertmaster for two symphony orchestras and as a professor of violin and viola at two universities. He also is a member of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra.
Union Lutheran will soon be welcoming a new pastor, the Rev. David W. Nuottila, from Charleston, S.C.
Zarah Plyler notes that Plexico will be honored in the fellowship hall after this Sunday’s service.
Union’s newest members will be recognized then, too.
“He has brought in a good many members,” Plyler says. “…He has been a wonderful pastor, and he’s really good.”
Remember, she could listen to him preach for hours.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.