LUMBERTON — After 50 years of service of giving to the community as a member of the Kiwanis Club of Robeson-Lumberton, Ralph Ussery was on the receiving end on Wednesday — the recipient of a surprise thank you from more than 50 fellow Kiwanians.
The surprise was written all over Ussery’s face as he walked into the dining room at Pinecrest Country Club, his smile reflecting the reward of giving.
Mayor Ray Pennington, a longtime fried and neighbor of Ussery’s, was one of the first to make remarks.
“It’s been 50 years — you’ve been my neighbor for 48 years, friend for 49,” Pennington said. “Ralph Ussery has done more than his part in every function that benefits children. I don’t know anyone that would have anything to say bad about him.”
As Pennington reached for his glasses to present Ussery a framed certificate, he was interrupted.
“You didn’t need those glasses 48 years ago,” Ussery said jokingly.
“There are a lot of things I didn’t do 48 years ago that I do now,” Pennington said to a room of laughs. “A lot of things I did do that I don’t do now.”
The conversation was one between friends, and Ussery’s positive attitude does not go unnoticed.
“Even with his age and some health problems — and he lost wife in the last three to four years — he constantly leads by example,” club President Mike DeCinti said. “He is not the most outspoken person, but when something needs to be said, he voices his opinion. He doesn’t need to say a word. You just watch what he does.”
Ussery’s consistency of character may be one reason Pennington proclaimed Oct. 31 as Ralph Ussery Day, presenting him the certificate his glasses gave him the ability to read. It may also be why the same day, Ussery was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine — the state’s highest civilian honor given to individuals with a proven record of service to North Carolina.
But it’s Ussery’s love for children that has radiated in the hearts of the club members, and motivated them to celebrate his achievements.
“It has almost come full circle,” DeCinti said. “He was instrumental in getting Kiwanis to donate to the Exploration Station to get it started. This past year, he pushed for money to donate to the building of a pirate ship. He has literally been there from getting the doors open. He just follows through.”
The Exploration Station is a hands-on learning center for children in Lumberton.
“Children are special,” Ussery said. “I’ve spent 50 years trying to work with children and help out.”
In addition to his work with the Exploration Station, Ussery also serves on the board of directors for the Boys and Girls Club of Lumberton. The Kiwanians donate money they raise in fundraisers to the organization — fundraisers like the annual Pancake Festival, which is also celebrating its 50th anniversary.
“It’s one of the longest running fundraisers in the club,” DeCinti said. “It’s a staple here in the community — people look forward to it every year.”
Ussery has been instrumental in the festival for as long as he’s been a member of the Kiwanis Club.
At the event, which will take place on Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturday from 7 to 9 a.m. at the Bill Sapp Recreation Center in downtown Lumberton, a $6 ticket buys all-you-can-eat pancakes and sausage to raise money for organizations the club supports.
“We have members in their 20s or 30s who maybe sell 25 tickets,” DeCinti said. “Ralph sells 200 to 300 every year by himself.”
After members of the club took the floor to tell stories of shared fishing trips and adventures, Ussery said that he considered everyone in the banquet hall his family.
But it was his own family — his children in particular — who first inspired him to dote over young people.
Motioning toward an old friend, Ussery explained why investing in children is so important.
“When they grow up, they become many things. They can become mayors of towns,” he said.