Community hopes to repay Vining for lifelong dedication to Polk County

In Bill Miller’s view, the value of service that John Vining has provided to Polk County over the years is immeasurable.

“I don’t know that there’s an amount of money that wouldn’t be pennies per hour for the work he has done,” said Miller, retired superintendent of Polk County Schools. “He is what you want every citizen to be. He cares so much for everything in this community.”

Spend time anywhere in Polk County, see a breathtaking group of trees or sprouting flower beds, and there’s a good chance that Vining had a hand in their growth. Not just through his 32-plus years with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, but the uncountable hours he has spent volunteering his time and knowledge maintaining Polk County’s natural beauty.

Yet those seeds are far from all that Vining has planted and nurtured in his lifetime of devotion to the area – the number of local youth he has worked with through 4-H programs, youth basketball and high school FFA likely numbers well into the thousands. He has aided Polk County Schools as a constant presence on scholarship committees. He played a key role in the restoration of Polk County’s courthouse as well as venues such as Stearns Park in Columbus and Rogers Park, Ziglar Field and Vaughn Creek Greenway in Tryon.

“There is not a group of individuals in this community, young or old, that he hasn’t reached,” said Jan McGuinn, who collaborated often with Vining over the years while working as an extension agent in Rutherford County.

In recognition of so much Vining has done locally, Polk County FFA has decided to help the community give something back. The group is holding a plant sale and barbecue lunch on March 30 as a fundraiser for Vining, who is currently battling liver cancer.

The day’s activities will run from 11 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. Chicken and pork plates will be available for $10, and the Polk County FFA will be selling plants in its greenhouse. The greenhouse can be reached by taking the first right after entering the Polk County High School campus. Anyone interested in donating to the fundraiser can do so in person at either of the HomeTrust Bank locations in Tryon and Columbus or via mail to Polk County High School, Attn. Chauncey Barber, 1681 E. NC 108 Highway, Columbus NC 28722.

Barber, who teaches agriculture at Polk County High and leads the FFA program while also running his own farm, is helping lead the fundraising efforts.

“John has been a tremendous mentor to everyone in the community,” he said. “He’s just someone you can call any time.”

John Vining, first from left in back row, has coached Polk County Parks and Recreation youth basketball teams for many years (photo courtesy April Gentry)

A penchant for community service runs strong in Vining’s lineage. His grandfather, Seth Vining Sr., founded the Tryon Daily Bulletin in 1929 and was active in organizations such as the Tryon Kiwanis Club, Tryon Chamber of Commerce and Polk County Historical Association. Vining’s father, Seth Jr., oversaw the Daily Bulletin for more than 20 years, worked as chief file clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives and served in many of the same local organizations as his father.

So after graduating from Tryon High School and Clemson University, perhaps it was natural for John Vining to also become a community fixture upon returning to the county with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service as the assistant agricultural agent in charge of horticulture and the Polk County 4-H program. He would later become the county’s extension director.

In his three decades with the Extension Service, Vining accomplished much. His Gardener’s Calendar and Showstopper Plants publication earned national awards. The 4-H program and its summer camp thrived. But it was his work with Polk County farms and farmers where Vining made the biggest impact.

“No matter the size of the farm, they are all equally important to John,” Barber said. “John knew all the farmers and their families. He knew daily decisions farmers made had huge impacts on their livelihood, so he knew answers had to be as quick as possible. I know this for a fact because I would call him around 6 or 6:30 p.m. and ask him what he was doing. ‘Of course, returning calls,’ he would say.

“The thing I have always heard from others is John is an unbelievable listener and is so truthful. I know personally that I would be where I am today professionally if it weren’t for John, and my farming operation would not be where it is without his expertise.”

Vining didn’t limit his interests to agriculture, though. He sought to serve the community by serving on numerous committees and boards, including the Polk County Recreation Department Advisory Committee, Tryon City School Board, Polk County Community Foundation Board, Children’s Theater Festival Super Saturday Event Committee, Tryon Depot Master Plan Committee, Tryon Town Hall Restoration Committee, Saluda Grade Rail Corridor Committee, Tryon Small Town Main Street Committee and Tryon Parks Committee.

Perhaps no better testament of Vining’s devotion to Polk County can be found than in one of Barber’s favorite stories. With a John Deere Gator utility vehicle as a prize in a local drawing, Vining told Barber he would donate the Gator to the FFA program if he won it. That he did, and the Gator soon arrived at the PCHS farm.

“He wouldn’t let us pay him anything for it,” Barber said. “He even paid to have it delivered to us.”

Retirement hasn’t slowed Vining much – he is often seen around the county cleaning town entranceways, pruning greenery, keeping Polk County plants and trees as healthy as possible.

Still giving, unselfishly, to make Polk County a better place.

“Involvement, encouragement, mentorship and support of whatever the community needed, he has been there,” McGuinn said. “Daunting as the challenge is he has faced, he has continued to support the community he loves.

“It’s time now to give back to him a little of that involvement, encouragement, mentorship and support that he has so graciously shared.”

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