John Pugh, we’re going to miss you

Larry Penkava
Larry Penkava

I knew John Pugh before he was a legend.

John died Sept. 10, 32 days from his 102nd birthday.

I grew up in the community where John had established an Esso service station and a heating oil distributorship. He was a self-made man, working a full-time job in a textile factory while building up his business.

John Pugh
John Pugh

I had known of him from early in my life but got to really know him as a young husband and father. In 1976, I was living in Greensboro when I took a job in Asheboro, near where I grew up. I knew that, with a family, I had to find a place to live close to my work.

I heard that John had a rent house that was vacant. I called him and we met.

John told me he’d had trouble with renters, who would skip out owing him money. Even then at the rent house, there was an old pickup truck filled with soft drink bottles that he would have to dispose of.

“I was planning to get out of renting,” he told me. “But I know your father and I’m sure I can trust you,” he said.

John charged me $95 rent and he furnished the heating oil. How could I refuse such an offer?

It was four years later that he confronted me, clearly uncomfortable, to say he’d have to raise my rent to $120. “Oil prices have skyrocketed,” he said.

But by then, I was making more than enough to account for the increase. I was told by someone close to John that he had struggled as a young man and, therefore, tried to help out others who were starting out in life.

John was an excellent landlord. If anything went wrong with the house, he was quick to fix it, either himself or one of his employees. The only reason I left was because my three daughters were getting too big for our two-bedroom house.

When I became a newspaper writer, I interviewed John after his Antarctic adventure.

He was 98 at the time, I think, and he had not only walked on the southern-most continent but had done the polar plunge, showing me a certificate that he was the oldest person to jump into the frigid waters.

It was after he turned 100 that I interviewed him again. He had entered as a contestant in the Dancing with the Randolph Stars event for Randolph Community College. I went to his apartment and took notes as he talked.

John had purchased a computer so he could email all his friends around the world. So I was able to send him the article I wrote about him and his dancing partner, Linda Covington.

He emailed back and said it was too long. So I shortened it somewhat and emailed it back.

Again, he said it was too long. Maybe we should just forget the whole thing.

Then I realized that he wanted me to cut out the story about him. I did and he accepted the piece.

What I had to cut was the story he told me. He thought it was focused too much on him, instead of the Dancing with the Randolph Stars.

The story involved a great-grandson who was going to get married in Hawaii. John knew that the reception would have dancing, and he didn’t know how to dance.

To prepare for the event, John surreptitiously took dancing lessons at the Arthur Murray studio in Greensboro.

At the wedding reception when the dancing began, a lady came to the table where John was sitting with some other men. She wanted to dance and John accepted the invitation, surprising everyone with his graceful steps.

John, I know you wanted me to keep this under wraps. But it’s what the readers wanted to read all along.

Rest in peace, my friend.

LARRY PENKAVA, who has written Now and Then since 1994, will miss his landlord and friend.

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