Renwick Pridgeon remembers tagging along with his mother when he was a child as she carried out her duties as a chief judge at a Southeast Raleigh precinct during elections.
He started carrying on the family tradition when he was 22, sometimes driving over from his studies at Fayetteville State University to work at his Raleigh neighborhood. Now 62, he’s worked every presidential election, and most of the ones in between, for 40 years.
He has been chief judge at his own precinct, at Fuller Elementary, for many of those years, and in recent years has run curbside voting at the Chavis Community Center during early voting – overseeing up to 200 cars a day carrying voters who can’t make it inside the building to vote.
He planned to spend each of the 17 days of early voting at Chavis. That calls for often leaving his house before 7 a.m. and returning after 9 p.m. Between training for his various jobs, helping to prepare absentee documents and test machines, then certifying the vote once it’s done, Pridgeon started work this year just after Labor Day and will continue through most of November.
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I get to be there and help someone when they’re exercising the most important right they have, a right that people have fought for throughout our history.
Renwick D. Pridgeon
Outside of his work for the election board, Pridgeon has held a variety of jobs over the years – musician, coach, preacher, teacher and 911 operator, to name a few. He jokes that he’s the kind of person who can’t do one thing for more than a few years. Yet his election work is a constant presence.
He was honored with a #ONEWake Volunteer Award in August in recognition of his long years of service.
“I get to be there and help someone when they’re exercising the most important right they have, a right that people have fought for throughout our history,” he says. “It’s something that’s very special to me.”
John Black, who was working with Pridgeon at Chavis last week, says Pridgeon’s mixture of personable and efficient is a major asset. Particularly in busy times when tensions can run high, Pridgeon’s calm demeanor and years of experience help keep everyone calm.
“He’s fun, and very charismatic, but he also keeps everything flowing the right way,” Black says. “When people get upset, he always knows the right thing to say to get everyone calm again.”
Starting with Carter
Pridgeon was born in Raleigh at the old St. Agnes hospital and grew up in the Chavis Heights neighborhood, just blocks from the Chavis Community Center.
His mother was a poll worker and chief judge for years, and for a few years they worked together at the Carnage precinct. They now run a home day care together.
Pridgeon attended segregated schools in Southeast Raleigh until his senior year of high school, when he was sent to Broughton High School during its first year of integration.
He says it was a tense year. Because each sports team and other organizations had to share roles among the black and white students, he gave up football and served as a co-chair of the drumline with a white student.
“It wasn’t easy to get along,” he says. “There was a lot of rebellion starting out, but we settled in and got through it.”
He studied music at Fayetteville State University, and later at Shaw University, but says he never completed either because he kept leaving to travel with bands.
While many of those jaunts were with rock bands, his studies were in classical percussion, and he once got a chance to play with the N.C. Symphony during a community event.
The first election he worked was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter took over the White House, and he continued his work at the polls even as his other jobs changed.
He first worked as a teacher’s assistant with students in special education classes, and says he loved getting tough kids to turn over a new leaf. Later, as a 911 operator, he remembers coaching a little girl whose grandmother had collapsed.
“It was one of the most rewarding things I had ever done,” he says. “But I always want to do something else.”
He had a photography business for a while, and he also coached his son’s sports teams from little league through to high school.
A stint with drug addiction in the 1990s led him to become involved in Narcotics Anonymous, and he still does work with that group. He also became a licensed minister and preaches regularly at Macedonia New Life Church on Rock Quarry Road.
He says working at his home day care for the past 16 years is also rewarding; he grows attached to each of the children he works with.
“The first ones we took in are now in high school,” he says. “They’re like my children.”
Curbside voting at Chavis, available to anyone who says they cannot get inside to vote, is a high-energy job. For each car that pulls up, a poll worker must make three trips inside – to check in the voter, and then submit and verify the ballot.
They wait by the car as the person fills in the ballot – sometimes half an hour or more – and repeat the process for multiple voters in one car. On the first day of early voting this year, he says he put more than 25,000 steps on his Fitbit.
Pridgeon has created a system over the years that keeps chaos at bay during busy times – numbering each parking spot and tracking where the voters in the car are in the process and who’s helping them.
But those who work with him say that his ability to work with people – particularly calming down those who have to wait – is key to his success.
“This place would fall apart without him,” says Jean Neese, who has worked with Pridgeon on several elections, including early voting this year.
Over the years he’s picked up more and more responsibilities, training to do everything from certifying the ballots to registering voters to checking voting machines before elections.
Yet his heart is at his own precinct. It’s there that he sees his life flash before him: former teachers, men he coached when they were boys, neighbors he’s seen every year for decades.
“This has been my life,” he says. “I keep saying I’ll stop, but I can’t imagine not doing it.”
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Renwick D. Pridgeon Sr.
Born: September 1954, Raleigh
Career: Operates family-run home day care; longtime Board of Elections volunteer
Education: Studied music at Fayetteville State University and Shaw University
Family: Children Renwick Jr. and Norlishia; granddaughter Xiomara
Fun fact: Pridgeon is nearly always wearing some item of clothing that references his beloved Dallas Cowboys.