John Thurman (JT) Denning died Sept. 8, 2001, 15 years ago. He was my father-in-law and I nicknamed him the “Briar Buster.” Those of you who have grown up in Sampson County and hunted quail or rabbits will remember the thick woods and ditch banks one had to traverse years ago when hunting. He and I enjoyed many quail hunting expeditions; in fact, I have been accused of marrying his daughter, Ann, just so I could hunt with him. He was a large, muscular man and I always followed him through the woods, allowing him to clear a path for me through the briars – thus the name “Briar Buster.”
However, he was a “briar buster” and a man of vision in many more ways. During his tenure as Superintendent of Sampson County Schools, the three-tiered system then in operation was successfully consolidated into 4 districts and integrated. After his retirement as superintendent, he was hired by Sampson County to develop a Department of Human Resources and Division of Aging, and again he used his “briar busting” skills to provide services for adults, special needs citizens and the aged, including the Meals on Wheels program and the original rural health clinics. He became involved in AARP and served as national president of the then 28 million strong organization from 1986 to 1988. He used that office to again “briar bust” for services and programs for older adults, urging them to never stop learning and to use their skills and knowledge to help educate their children and grandchildren. I remember that before my marriage to his daughter, he was involved in the Boy Scout program. When asked about his involvement (since he had two daughters and no sons), he replied, “I hope to have grandsons someday.” His foresight and involvement in the Boy Scouts enabled 2 grandsons and 2 great grandsons to benefit from the scout program.
Few people are aware of the debt of gratitude the people of Sampson County owe J T Denning for his proudest accomplishment, the establishment of Sampson Community College. Through his diligence, foresight and planning when he was Superintendent of Sampson County Schools, he was able to secure a grant in 1967 to establish Sampson Technical Institute (Sampson Tech), which had its origin in one room in the old county complex, and which later developed into Sampson Community College. He was indeed the founding father of Sampson Community College which now provides educational services to thousands of Sampson County residents. I do not believe even J T could have envisioned the growth and the myriad opportunities now available at SCC. He would be so proud of this institution. It is appropriate that the library displays his portrait and is named in his honor. To quote Larry Barnes from a Sampson Independent article in 2004: “We would not have this fine institution today if this educational pioneer had not focused on the dire educational needs of adult citizens in our county and with sheer determination and extraordinary vision brought the dream of a community college to fruition in Sampson County.”
J T was truly an effective “briar buster,” making the path easier and life better for thousands of Sampson County children, adult learners, special needs citizens and the aging population. I am so proud of his accomplishments, especially his founding Sampson Community College, and I am so fortunate to have been his son-in-law.
Dr. Mac Herring Jr.