Charlie’s angel

Charlie Justice, Sarah Justice, Mrs. Chan Highsmith, and Chan Highsmith during a 1949 Sugar Bowl party in New Orleans.

Charlie Justice, Sarah Justice, Mrs. Chan Highsmith, and Chan Highsmith during a 1949 Sugar Bowl party in New Orleans.

On this day twelve years ago, the state of North Carolina lost a treasure—and Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard and his wife Marla lost a dear friend.  Sarah Alice Hunter Justice passed away in Shelby, North Carolina at age 79.  Today, Jack Hilliard takes a look at the life and times of a very special lady.

She was an angel here on earth, the epitome of a lady, always a gleam in her eye, and she never raised her voice.          —Jane Browne, Justice family friend, 2/18/04

It was early in the spring term, 1942, at Lee H. Edwards High in Asheville.  Football star Charlie Justice knew he was going to be late for class, so he applied some of his football skills and began to run down the hall.  In the process he ran over Sarah Alice Hunter.  She laughed and didn’t make anything of it.  Charlie was impressed, and later asked her out.  A notation in the campus newspaper’s “Rumors Afloat” column on March 20th said, “Charlie looks like he’s finally settled down to one girl—Nice going Sarah.”

Following her graduation in May 1942, Sarah headed to Appalachian State in Boone, but decided to return home to Asheville at Christmas.  Charlie finished at Lee Edwards on May 28, 1943, and was off to the Navy at Bainbridge Naval Training Station in Bainbridge, Maryland.  He continued playing football, while Sarah took a job with the Naval Observatory in nearby Washington, D. C.

Ten days after Charlie led Bainbridge to a 46 to 0 win over the University of Maryland, he went on a well deserved leave.  At the same time, Sarah took a brief leave from her job. The two headed to Asheville, where they were married at Trinity Episcopal Church on November 23, 1943.

Following his military obligation, Charlie and Sarah moved back to North Carolina and enrolled at UNC on Valentine’s Day, 1946.  Since Charlie was eligible for the GI Bill, Sarah got his football scholarship, thus becoming the first female to attend Carolina on a football scholarship.  In Chapel Hill, Charlie’s football heroics became legendary and on football Saturdays Sarah was always in the stands, cheering him on wearing her special good luck hat.  On August 23, 1948, the Justice family increased by one with the birth of son Charles Ronald. (They called him Ronnie.)

SMU All America football player Doak Walker, Doak's wife Norma, Sarah Justice, UNC All America football player Charlie Justice, Julia Morton, Hugh Morton, on the stoop of the Mortons' home in Wilmington. Walker and Justice were participants in the 1950 Azalea Festival.

SMU All America football player Doak Walker, Doak’s wife Norma, Sarah Justice, UNC All America football player Charlie Justice, Julia Morton, Hugh Morton, on the stoop of the Mortons’ home in Wilmington. Walker and Justice were participants in the 1950 Azalea Festival.

Following his playing days at Carolina, Charlie signed on with the Washington Redskins for four seasons.  In 1952, daughter Barbara joined the family and they returned to North Carolina in 1955, where they were often Hugh Morton’s guests at events in Wilmington and Grandfather Mountain.  They especially liked the Highland Games and Gathering of the Scottish Clans each July.

Over the years, Charlie and Sarah offered their name, their time, their talent, and their money to just about every cause in the Tar Heel state from Chapel Hill to Asheville to Greensboro . . . from Hendersonville to Flat Rock and Cherryville.  They were there when needed.  Sarah gave much of her time to the causes that improve the lives of the mentally challenged.  In Cherryville, she helped raise funds for Gaston Residential Services, which provides housing for the handicapped. The Special Olympics program was also close to her heart.  In 1989, when the Charlotte Treatment Center named a wing of its facility for Charlie, they also named a wing of the facility for Sarah.

Sarah and Charlie justice during their 50th wedding anniversary party.

Sarah and Charlie justice during their 50th wedding anniversary party.

On June 11, 1993, Charlie and Sarah lost their son Ronnie…the victim of a heart attack. He was 44 years old.  Following Carolina’s win over Duke 38 to 24 on November 26, 1993, a special celebration was held in the Carolina Inn on the UNC campus. While the win was celebrated, the real reason for the celebration was to offer sincere congratulations to Charlie and Sarah Justice on their 50th wedding anniversary, which was actually on November 23rd but game day three days later gave everybody a good reason for a celebration. The invitation for the event set the stage for the event:

A Golden Anniversary

Should be shared with family and friends.

Please join Billy, Barbara, Emilie

And Sarah Crews, Leah, David

And Beth Overman and in spirit

And loving memory Ronnie Justice,

In celebration of the fifty year

Marriage of Sarah and Charlie Justice.

 

There were family members, teammates, friends, and fans in attendance. Following a family toast by Barbara, Tar Heel Head Football Coach Mack Brown offered congratulations and spoke about the importance of Carolina’s football heritage. And throughout the ceremony, Hugh Morton was there with camera in hand documenting every phase of the event.

You didn’t need to be around Charlie Justice very long before it became very clear that his asking Sarah to marry him was the most important event in his life.  Although she was often thought of as Charlie’s wife, Sarah Justice didn’t fit the old saying, “Behind every great man stands a great woman . . . .” Charlie and Sarah stood side by side . . . they were a team.  They were connected. Their love story was the stuff of storybooks.  Sarah was always there . . . but chose to be just outside the spotlight.

In a 1995 interview with Justice Biographer Bob Terrell, Charlie talked about how the “Hand of Providence” placed him at the right place at the right time: “If I hadn’t knocked Sarah Hunter down while scuffling in the hall in high school, she might never have noticed me.  You bet that was providential!”

Soon after the Terrell biography was published in early 1996, Charlie began a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s—a battle he would lose at 3:25 AM on Friday, October 17, 2003.  A memorial service celebrating his life was held at The Cathedral of All Souls in the Biltmore section of Asheville on Monday, October 20th.  Asheville Citizen-Times senior writer Keith Jarrett beautifully described the scene outside the church following the ceremony.

“It was one of several warm, touching scenes on a beautiful, cloud-free day with a sky the color of you know what.  Sarah sat in a wheelchair just outside the Cathedral as the UNC Clef Hangers, an all-male a cappella group, softly sang James Taylor’s ballad ‘Carolina in My Mind.’  Sarah tilted her head and was just inches away from the singers.  For a brief moment she closed her eyes, soaking in the words and perhaps recalling the memories of a marriage of love and devotion of 60 years.”

On November 4, 2003, I received a note from Barbara Crews: “Mother and I are at the beach.  Mom loves the ocean.  I think she has such peace now, she feels her job is done, and she did it well. . . . She is the best person I have ever known.”

There was a message on my answering machine when I arrived home from work on Monday, February 9, 2004.  It was from Billy Crews telling me that his mother-in-law had passed away earlier that day.  It had been 115 days since Charlie died. Marla and I had visited Sarah two days before on Saturday, February 7th at Hospice at Wendover in Shelby.  Sarah Justice was 79-years-old.

In an article in The Charlotte Observer issue of Wednesday, February 18, 2004 titled “Caregiver more than Mrs. Choo Choo,” Gerry Hostetler talked with some of Sarah’s family.  Son-in-law Billy Crews said, “She was always full of grace, and for her whole life a caregiver. She enjoyed doing things for other people and being out of the limelight.”  Granddaughter and namesake Sarah Fowler added, “She was a very giving person who always put others’ needs in front of her own. She was the backbone of this family and kept us going.”

Finally, Barbara ended the interviews with this: “She was just a saint, the kind of person you want to be around.”

11 thoughts on “Charlie’s angel

  1. As a child my parents took me to more than 30 of Charlie’s games. I still have the football programs for almost all of them and the ticket stubs for the Sugar and Cotton Bowls. Got to have a one-on-one with Charlie just after UNC days. Never met a nicer person.
    Special memory for an eighty years plus like me.

  2. Thank you Lloyd for sharing your thoughts and memories. Those of us who were fortunate enough to see games and spend time with Charlie and Sarah Justice are truly blessed.

  3. The man on the right in picture #3 is UNC’s great All America from the “Golden Era,” Art Weiner.

  4. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Charlie and Sarah Justice which I truly regret. I have enjoyed this article very much having heard so much about Choo Choo Justice. Fortunately, I know Mrs Sarah’s namesake Sarah Crews Fowler, She, too, is a lovely young lady and carries her Grandmother’s wonderful nature on in her life.

  5. I was born in Jan 1948. My Mom and Grandma loved Carolina football! They would go to every home game ….with me in tow. Dad and Grandpa stayed home working! After a while I was dubbed little ChooChoo.
    67 years later I have been blessed with a grand daughter, who calls me ChooChoo. It’s gone full circle. Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice’s name will NEVER die!! Harry Bryant, Jr ’70

  6. If Sarah Justice was Charlie’s angel, then our own Jack Hilliard is surely Charlie’s Boswell…..How fortunate North Carolina history is to have Jack’s unique first-person reporting and insights!

  7. What a treat to read this tribute to Sarah and Charlie Justice and my good friend, Hugh Morton. To this day I have never seen a better, more exciting player than I Charlie wear Carolina Blue. I had the good fortune to see him play several times while a student at old Central High School here in Charlotte and one that stands out was the Texas game in 1949 (?) when the Tar Heels, after losing to Texas the previous year, got off to a quick start and lead 21-0 in the first quarter. Several years ago when I was Genera Manager of WBTV and we were the sponsor for the senior tour golf tournament, the WBTV Invitational, I met with Pat Summerall CBS’ top NFL announcer about coming to Charlotte to play in the Pro/AM. He said that he would on one condition…..that he get to play with Charlie Justice. I called Charlie, told him what Pat said, and he, of course, being the type of person he was immediately accepted. The two did play together and had a wonderful time sharing memories from their NFL days when Charlie was with the Redskins and Pat with the Giants. You will never find two finer representatives of the world of sports.

  8. Thank you, Mr. Babb, for reading our post about Charlie and Sarah Justice and for taking time to add your comment.

    I don’t believe I’ve had the honor of meeting you, but your name is very familiar from my time as a producer/director for WFMY-TV in Greensboro. I was there for 42-years and in 1983 your station, along with WRAL-TV in Raleigh, and WFMY, formed the Carolina News Network where the three stations shared information and video for the nightly newscasts.

    Your story about Charlie Justice playing in the WBTV Invitational brought to mind a couple of favorite Charlie Justice golf stories from the Queen City.

    In 1948, when Justice was in his junior year at Carolina and at the pinnacle of his playing days, he was invited to join some friends in Charlotte for a weekend of golf. Charlie had recently become interested in the game, but hadn’t yet purchased clubs, so one of his friends let him borrow a set.

    Word had gotten out that Charlie was in town and planning to play a round of golf. A crowd gathered at the first tee to see just how good UNC’s All America tailback would do at a different sport.

    Charlie stepped up to the first tee, took out a 7-iron, and promptly belted his drive for a hole-in-one on the par-3 hole.

    Later in an interview, Charlie recalled his first ace on the links, “I guess the good Lord just meant for me to be a showboat or something.”

    Charlie Justice was often a part of charity golf events across the state and in April of 1989 he was Honorary Chairman for the first annual Freedom Classic in Charlotte.

    Again, Mr. Babb, thank you for your kind remarks about my dear friend.

  9. Those of us who had the honor of knowing UNC football legend Charlie Justice, often heard him say the greatest decision he ever made in his life had nothing to do with football. His greatest decision was asking Sarah Alice Hunter to marry him. They were married on November 23, 1943. (So, I choose to believe they recently celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary.)

    Charlie and Sarah Justice were a team, and when Charlie lost his battle with Alzheimer’s on October 17, 2003, Sarah said, “I’ll be close behind.” She followed the love of her life on February 9, 2004…115 days later.

    Charlie and Sarah’s daughter, Barbara (Justice) Crews, said in a “Charlotte Observer” interview on February 18, 2004, “She kept my daddy’s feet on the ground. She managed to keep him humble, and that was a very big obligation. They were so connected: it’s quite a love story.”

    So on this day we celebrate her birthday. Sarah Alice would have turned 92 on this day, December 11, 2016…born on December 11, 1924 in Buncombe County in Western North Carolina.

    Sarah’s longtime friend Jane Browne said it best in that “Observer” ’04 interview: “Charlie and her family always came first. That was her life…She kept the family together and devoted her life to them.”

    So, as I’ve often said before, I choose to believe that Charlie and Sarah are celebrating yet another special day together in that greater life.

  10. On this day thirteen years ago, Friday, February 13, 2004, a very special memorial service was held at The Church of the Redeemer in Shelby, North Carolina.

    The service, “In Thanksgiving for the Life of Sarah Hunter Justice,” was conducted by The Rev. Dr. Eugene C. McDowell and The Rev. Marie S. Cope.
    Participating in the service were three very special people in Sarah’s life…her daughter Barbara (Justice) Crews…Leah Overman and Rebecca Phillips.
    Barbara talked about how her Mom was the backbone of the family and how she kept her celebrity husband’s feet on the ground. (Her husband was UNC football legend Charlie Justice).

    Following the Shelby service, Sarah was laid to rest at Calvary Episcopal Church Cemetery in Fletcher, North Carolina beside the love of her life, and her loving son Ronnie Justice. There are several very moving Hugh Morton photographs in the North Carolina Collection from that day in 2004.

    So on this day, I choose to believe that Sarah, Charlie, and Ronnie are together again in that larger life…a very special place where those of us who knew Sarah, hope we can join her and family at the end of our journey.

    https://s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/find-a-grave-prod/photos/2006/308/8001512_116278859105.jpg

  11. When UNC football legend Charlie Justice made his final appearance in his beloved Kenan Memorial Stadium on November 17, 2001, he was escorted to midfield in a special golf cart. Beside him was the love of his life, Sarah Alice…his wife of 58 years. They were a team and were most often seen together.

    As Charlie was honored, Sarah waited patiently for his return to her side. When he returned, they rode around the Stadium to the delight of the Kenan crowd.

    So on this day, December 11, 2017 we celebrate her birthday. Sarah Alice would have turned 93 on this day…born on December 11, 1924 in Buncombe County in Western North Carolina. Sarah Alice (Hunter) Justice was indeed an angel on this earth.

    I choose to believe a celebration will take place today in that greater life…Sarah, Charlie, along with several teammates and friends. Among that group of friends will be Hugh Morton, camera in hand.

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