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The pandemic has claimed around 12,000 North Carolinian lives since March 24, 2020. To honor them, we're telling eight life stories – a cross-section of our Carolina neighbors – that ended too soon due to COVID.

A Community Servant ‘Goes Home’: Remembering Wyvis Oxendine Sr.

Wyvis-Oxendine-Sr-obit-photo
Natalia Polanco
/
For WUNC
Wyvis Oxendine Sr. was a longtime Robeson County educator, community organizer, county commissioner and entrepreneur. He died of COVID-19 in January at age 74.

For a man who didn’t seek acclaim, Wyvis Oxendine Sr. had a tendency to stand out.

“You would not forget Wyvis Sr. the first time you met him,” said his son, Wyvis Oxendine Jr. “I don’t care if it was a little joke, a little story that he told, when he walked into the room, you knew that his presence was there.”

Wyvis Jr. and his mother sat side-by-side on the tan sofa in the family’s soft-lit living room in the small town of Maxton — not far from the North Carolina-South Carolina state line — on a recent afternoon. The hum of passing cars from the nearby highway punctuated their conversation.

Wyvis Sr. — or Senior as he was affectionately known — was a longtime Robeson County educator, community organizer, county commissioner and entrepreneur. He died of COVID-19 in January at age 74.

As friends and family described, Wyvis Sr. had his hand in countless positive changes in the community. But it’s hard to take stock of his full impact, mostly because he tended not to take credit for it. His friend of more than 40 years and fellow educator Walter Jackson, said some of Wyvis’s best work happened behind the scenes.

“He served without wanting any type of notoriety for the things that he did,” said Jackson.

A Man Of Talent And Tenacious Spirit

Wyvis Sr. had a fierce talent from a young age. He played basketball, volleyball, and was
extended an offer to join the Minnesota Twins minor league system. An offer that came a little too late, since he had already signed up to serve in the Air Force.

“That’s him right there with the trophy in his hand, that was the conference championship,” said Wyvis Jr. while looking at a sepia-toned photo of his dad’s big win for Prospect High School in 1965. “And you see all the crowd around, he got MVP of the game.”

Wyvis Oxendine Sr. and his family
Courtesy of the Oxendine family
Longtime educator Wyvis Oxendine Sr. (center back) wraps his arms around his family. From left to right, his son William (Bill) Channing, daughter Wynona Louise, wife Clara Denise and son Wyvis Jr.

Whatever Wyvis Sr. took on, he was tenacious. That drive got him to Harvard graduate school where he pursued a master's degree in education — no small feat for a Lumbee man from a small, rural community. As Denise explained, it wasn’t always easy.

“One of his colleagues said, ‘You’ll never make it, [you’re] Native American, you won’t make it.’ And that gave him that extra incentive and that extra push to say, ‘Yes I can and [I’m going to] show you, not just me but for the rest of my people and for the world.’”

Wyvis did make it. He graduated with his master’s in education in 1977, becoming the second member of the Lumbee Tribe and one of the first Native Americans to earn a graduate degree from that university. His professors encouraged him to continue with a doctorate, even offering work in Hawaii. But Denise said he had other obligations.

“He would not do that because he had made a commitment to come back to Robeson County to help our Lumbee people,” she said.

Once home, Wyvis got to work trying to improve opportunities for others in Robeson County. One of his big goals was to balance out educational opportunities for people regardless of race or class.

His friend Jack Morgan was also an educator, then a fellow Robeson County commissioner. He describes one of Wyvis’s biggest accomplishments.

“At one point there were six school systems in Robeson County, and those school systems were all fighting each other,” said Morgan.

We know it was hard, we know it was heartbreaking, but we have the belief and the faith that when he said goodbye on this side, he opened his eyes on the other.
Wyvis Oxendine Jr.

The school systems were divided along racial lines, with big differences in resources. Morgan said Wyvis was pivotal in the push for merging the school systems and creating a sense of unity between the factions.

Beyond his work in politics and education, Wyvis Sr.’s biggest act of service may have been more subtle. As his wife Denise described, Wyvis Sr. found small ways to support and lift up the people around him.

“I’ve seen him get 20, 30 phone calls from the afternoon, until he got ready to retire, which might be two o'clock sometimes at night. And not political stuff, just personal stuff,” Denise said. “One time it was a husband and wife having trouble and somebody said ‘He’ll help you if you go to him. He’ll help you.’”

A County Mourns

Robeson County, where Wyvis and many Lumbee live, has been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. At least one in eight residents in the county contracted COVID.

This winter, the virus swept through the Oxendine family. Senior had pre-existing health conditions including diabetes, high-blood pressure and Alzheimers. He was particularly vulnerable and it didn’t take long for the disease to do its work.

In January, Wyvis Sr.’s family donned masks and gathered for a small graveside ceremony. But Wyvis Jr. said it wasn’t a funeral, but rather a going home celebration.

“We know it was hard, we know it was heartbreaking but we have the belief and the faith that when he said goodbye on this side, he opened his eyes on the other,” Wyvis Jr. said. “He finally made it home. He heard on the other side, ‘Well done my good and faithful servant.’”

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