Rodney Lytle retires from Warren Wilson College

Barbara Hootman

Rodney Lytle, often called “Mr. Warren Wilson” because of his dedication to the college, retired on May 1 after 46 years of service.

“I am retiring now because I have some things that I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager, like serving in the Peace Corps, and maybe do some cooking for fun or profit,” Lytle said.

Lytle and Warren Wilson College became partners when he enrolled and joined the basketball team in 1973. After graduation, he was hired by the college, becoming a member of the administrative team.

“If it wasn’t for a local African-American Swannanoa boy, Alma Shippy having been invited to attend Warren Wilson College in 1952 before Brown vs. Board of Education, I often wonder where in the world would I have gone to college,” Lytle said. “He and the college were doing something amazing for the civil rights of people in America and around the world. They opened the pathway for many students to bond, grow academically in a community that to this day cares for all people.”

Lytle grew up in the 1950s in a small East Tennessee town. One of seven children, he lived in a home that his parents owned. Life changed drastically when one of his brothers fell, dying in his mother’s arms. Most severely affected was Lytle’s father, who started drinking heavily and eventually lost his job.

“The absence of his paycheck put our family in a situation where we had to move to low-income housing and away from my father,” Lytle told the college last year. “My mother had to get more work - cleaning houses and (at) a department store. Growing up in harsh circumstances was not all bad. Education was important.

“Even though we had very little money, my mother’s great resolve and hope for our future was never-ending. She was so determined to have us attend Warren Wilson College that she sold her car to give us $200 to start school. Ron (Lytle’s twin brother) and I arrived on campus 46 years ago with only that money.”

At the college, Lytle served as heavy duty crew supervisor (1973-2007), assistant basketball coach (1973-85) and head basketball coach (1985-89). He was director of multicultural affairs (2003-09), interim alumni coordinator (2009-11), and director of alumni relations from 2011 until he retired.

Lytle’s various jobs at the school allowed him to meet nationally and internationally influential people such as President George Bush, Vice President Al Gore and his former wife Tipper, Alex Haley and President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalyn.

Lytle worked with all seven Warren Wilson College presidents from 1973-2016. Alfred O. Canon, the college’s fourth president, awarded Lytle the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award in 1990. Doug Orr, its fifth president, awarded him the Distinguished Community Service Award in 2005.

Now Warren Wilson President Emeritus, Orr said people will most miss Rodney’s bright smile, ready laughter and abilities to recall stories from the college’s deep history.

“Rodney’s program leadership contributions have been many to Warren Wilson in athletics, to the physical plant, alumni affairs and college fundraising,” Orr said. “But most of all Rodney has greatly contributed to building and nurturing the college’s strong sense of community. On a personal note I will miss him as my singing partner, including our periodic performances together as the Blues Brothers at (the) LEAF (festival) and at Warren Wilson events.”

Billy Edd Wheeler, an award-winning songwriter, recording artist, playwright, poet, author and visual artist (and Swannanoa resident) painted a portrait of Lytle and gave it to the college for a fundraiser. Orr bought it and gave it to Lytle. Wheeler remembers the encounter that led to the painting.

“Lytle is a prominent presence in any group, and on that particular day (meeting at a friend’s house) he was decked out all in white,” Wheeler said. “ I took a lot of shots, thinking I might decide to paint him.”

Wheeler wrote a brief description of Lytle and put it on the back of the portrait.

“He reflects the core of the college’s commitment to work, service, academics and community - a man for all academic seasons.”

Lytle’s leadership skills were exhibited on the basketball court while he was a student. He captured the most valuable player honors after the 1970-71 season and all-conference accolades twice. His athletic abilities led to his induction into the Warren Wilson College Athletic Hall of Fame.

Michael Washel, director of the Buncombe County Schools Foundation, played basketball with Lytle at Warren Wilson College.

“I have known Rodney since the first day he stepped foot on campus for a visit,” Washel said. “Instead of going out like most of the students were going to do that weekend, Rodney, his brother Ron, Joe Kilday, and I played basketball for hours that night. After years of basketball, committees, and the alumni board, we have remained the best of friends.

“Everyone who has attended Warren Wilson the last 41 years knows Rodney. What people might not know is the caring and compassionate man he is outside of school. We are proud to think of ourselves as brothers.”

Lytle said that he always felt that he had been at the right place at the right time. He said he had the blessing of good people along his life journey.

“I have three grandchildren that I want to spend more time with and take the time to do more for some local nonprofits including Brother Wolf (Animal Rescue), Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, Helpmate, Our Voice and Habitat (for Humanity), just to mention a few. I also want to travel abroad. I am looking forward to singing, playing golf and painting my house.

“My next role at the college will be an appointment to the distinctive honor of college ambassador. What an honor to say the least. Who would ever think of a person coming from the projects of east Tennessee to have such a tribute to dignity? I hope I can live up to this and make my college and alumni proud.”

For the past 16 years Teresa Tatham has served on the Community Resource Council for the women inmates at the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women.

“Rodney was volunteering to work with the inmates through the Ministry of Hope before I started,” Tatham said. “I love Rodney. He has such a calming factor about him. He is a joy to work with. Through his fundraising efforts, the Community Resource Council has a nice nest egg to continue to help the women. Whatever Rodney does, he does it from the heart.”

Education has played an important role in Lytle’s life for more than four decades.

“The period between 1973 and 2016 contains some of the best days of my life, going from poverty to prosperity, enjoying a wonderful career, engaging in community service and experiencing a loving and respectful family,” Lytle said. “I am so proud of my alma mater, Warren Wilson College.”

Lytle looks forward to the future with his wife Sharon, his best friend for 42-plus years.