Order of the Long Leaf Pine: Three recipients a living testimony to African-American accomplishment
EAST SPENCER — One of the state’s highest honors, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine has been awarded to all sorts of people.
The famous, like Andy Griffith and Maya Angelou, and the local heroes — mayors, teachers, volunteers — whose names are known mainly in their towns.
A few years back, Barbara Mallett, now mayor of East Spencer, was one of several at Southern City Tabernacle AME Zion Church who came to a realization.
This award, she said, could have an impact in her town.
“We wanted to honor Black History Month,” Mallett said.
But why just honor the famous, or those who have already passed on, Mallett said, “when we have so many people in our community who have done great things?”
Mallett, along with fellow church member Essie Foxx and the Rev. Thomas Lee, then pastor of Southern City Tabernacle, helped start an effort to honor parishioners who had made such an impact.
Their plan was to choose one honoree per year, and submit his or her name for consideration for the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
It’s a process that starts months in advance — June or July, Mallett said — and there’s no guarantee that the award will be presented once it’s been applied for.
Lee, now pastor of White Rock AME Zion Church in Granite Quarry, did the initial research on the first three honorees.
The process of nominating someone for the award begins with a form that is submitted to the governor’s office.
“They review it, research it, and if they feel the individual is worthy of the award, the award will be presented,” Lee said.
“After having come to Southern City and engaged with the parishioners, I realized a lot of those members had contributed a lot to East Spencer, to Salisbury, and just to the state of North Carolina,” Lee said.
During Black History Month, he said, there were many famous names that are discussed every year.
It was worthwhile, he said, to pay tribute to those in the community whose stories could inspire others, especially young people, Lee said.
According to the website of the Long Leaf Pine Society, the award honors “persons who have a proven record of service to the state of North Carolina … (or) as a gesture of friendship and goodwill.”
Created under the administration of Gov. Terry Sanford in 1963, it has been by the governors of North Carolina to thousands of influential and hard-working men and women.
Today, 50 years later, three living recipients of the Order go to church together on Sundays, then go back out into the community where, collectively, they have given over a century of service.
The first person they nominated was John L. Rustin, Sr., former East Spencer police chief — who, as far as anyone can tell, was the first black chief of police in North Carolina.
He received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2011.
Rustin, 88, said the award was an honor that he credits to his work ethic, and his attitude.
“I was fair, and I would face you,” Rustin said. “I mean, I helped everybody. I didn’t play that black-and-white stuff.”
He said he served in the U.S. Army, where he was stationed in the Philippines, among other places.
Back in the U.S., Rustin went into law enforcement, serving for 35 years total — 15 of them as East Spencer’s police chief.
He later served on the town’s Board of Aldermen. He ran for mayor in 1999, 2003 and 2007.
Through his years of service, Rustin said, he always tried to give others “the utmost respect.”
“I didn’t kneel down to nobody,” Rustin said.
Receiving the award from then-Governor Bev Perdue was humbling, Rustin said.
“That gives me that pride to move on,” Rustin said.
Jean Kennedy was the next Southern City Tabernacle parishioner to receive the award, in 2012.
That day, she said, not knowing what was in store, Kennedy walked into a room filled not only with church members, but former students and friends from her years working in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
“I cried,” Kennedy said. “My church knew that I would, because that’s how I show my supreme happiness, is through tears.”
Raised in Granite Quarry, she credits her mother as her inspiration to become an educator.
“I always had a thirst for learning, because I wanted to make my mother proud of me,” Jean Kennedy said.
In 1967, she went to work as an English teacher at Dunbar High School, the school from which she had graduated.
The next year, 1968, African American students could elect to attend North Rowan High School.
And Kennedy, the junior teacher at Dunbar High, said she was told that “if I wanted a job next year, it would be at North.”
For the next 32 years, she said, “I crossed that Jefferson Street bridge” to North Rowan High School.
She never looked back.
“I’ve always seen myself as a servant. That’s my given task on this earth,” Jean Kennedy said.
After 32 years at North Rowan High, she worked as a lead teacher at North Rowan Middle School for two years, then held posts as interim lead teacher and substitute teacher through the end of the school year in 2004.
Now retired, Jean Kennedy is a volunteer tutor, still helping local students with their English.
Those decades of teaching have taught her that, no matter the situation, “students are virtually the same.”
“They want to know that you are fair, and as long as you are consistent, you will be respected,” Kennedy said.
In 2012, she said, that respect showed in the standing-room-only crowd that gathered to see her receive the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
“I was just humbled by that,” she said. “… I have never worked for recognition. All that I have done was just paying it forward for all the teachers who taught me.
Especially her mother, “my first teacher,” Kennedy said.
And, she added, “the teachers who saw something in me, who encouraged me to get out of me the best that I had,”
“The Long Leaf Pine is very important to me, but the memories of those times will resonate in my mind,” Jean Kennedy said.
This month, another Kennedy joined her as Southern City Tabernacle’s third recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
Jean Kennedy’s brother-in-law, William “Pete” Kennedy, was this year’s honoree.
The 10-term Salisbury City Councilman received his award February 10.
Reached by phone Sunday evening, Kennedy said that the public’s response to his receipt of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, among other recognition, was humbling.
“It feels good to know that someone has noticed the work I’ve done,” he said.
It will be this summer before the committee decides on the honoree for Black History Month 2014.
Lee said there are others in East Spencer, and in the Southern City Tabernacle congregation, who are worthy of this award.
In the meantime, Mallett believes that her church’s effort has made a difference.
Today, she said, we see other notable African Americans in Rowan County being celebrated in the press and in the community.
“I think that is a testament not only for Southern City but for the people of Rowan County,” Mallett said.
“We have honored people in our own midst who are alive, and I’m proud of that,” Mallett said.
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.
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