Saving Hatteras Light

. . . Mr. Byram and his handful of youths went along this ridge and when they came to a dead bush they cut it. Lacking a vehicle that would negotiate the sand, they dragged it to the Lighthouse and before nightfall they had built a hedgerow thirty inches high for a distance of sixty feet, set well back out of reach of the tide. . . Daylight next morning found Mr. Byram and his boys out to see what had happened in the night. Nothing except the tops of their hedgerow of dead brush was visible.—from Ben Dixon MacNeill’s The Hatterasman.

Edward Jefferson Byram was the leader of the advanced detachment of the Civilian Conservation Corps contingent assigned to the land and lighthouse on Cape Hatteras in August 1935. Deeded to the state of North Carolina for a state park, the state transferred the land to the National Park Service in December 1936.

Governor Hunt holding aerial photograph of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Governor Jim Hunt holding an aerial photograph made by Hugh Morton of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Morton made the photograph on August 6, 1981—one month prior to the kickoff of the Save the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse fundraising campaign. Morton made this portrait after Hunt spoke at an unidentified meeting of the Travel Council of North Carolina.

Today, September 8, 2021 marks the fortieth anniversary of another attempt to thwart the ravages of wind and sea against the lighthouse: the Save the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse fundraising campaign kickoff at the Mission Valley Inn at Raleigh. In 2009, Jack Hilliard wrote an extensive blog post about Hugh Morton’s role in saving the lighthouse. Jack’s story includes that event, but what happened the prior year that led to Morton’s involvement?

From time-to-time, Morton’s executive planners provide answers or clues. There are only a few entries on the topic in his 1981 planner:

  • April 30—“TV 7-8AM WCTI-TV New Bern at Mission Valley re Lighthouse Jerry Dean”
  • August 6—“Fly Hatteras Robert Baker”
  • September 8—“noon—Gov. Hunt—Sen Helms Raleigh”
  • October 8— 8:00 a.m. “Lighthouse meeting” with an additional entry: “Gov. Hunt – Nags Head – Hatteras”

Morton’s photograph held by Governor Hunt is from a 120 format negative (roll 1-101-3-3, frame 5). Several prints from that roll of film are in the Morton collection with a typed caption:

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in August 1981, with ocean shown less than 100 feet from its base. These photographs are a featured part of information being provided to the 100 County Chairmen in the lighthouse drive for funds in regional meetings in Asheville, Salisbury, Clinton and Rocky Mount Wednesday and Thursday April 7 and 8.

Hugh Morton’s name first appears in the press in association with saving the lighthouse on 26 July 1981. The previous day, during a news conference in Wilmington Secretary of the Interior Department James Watt and United States Senator Jesse Helms announced that Morton would head a general subscription to raise funds, harkening Morton’s campaign to bring the U.S.S. North Carolina to Wilmington in the early 1960s. Morton’s planner, however, has him in Linville and Grandfather Mountain.  As listed above, his planner does suggest earlier involvement in April. (There is no planner extant for 1980.)

As for the lighthouse itself, public awareness of the lighthouse’s imminent danger surfaced in an Associated Press Reports article published by The Charlotte Observer on October 14, 1980. The report noted that local residents feared the lighthouse “might not make it through the winter” because tides were “gnawing away at its foundation” and its steward, the National Park Service, did not have a plan to save it. Ray Couch, president of the Outer Banks Preservation Society, said that its members were writing letters to their congressional representatives to draw their attention to “the seriousness of the situation.” William Harris, superintendent of Hatteras National Seashore, stated that only sixty to ninety feet of sand remained between the ocean and the lighthouse and acknowledged that the beach erosion at the site was “very acute.” He also stated that an architect and engineering firm was assessing the situation.  He closed by saying, “The cheapest option is to move the lighthouse,” but “we have no money.”

Ten days later, a fierce storm struck the North Carolina coast and work crews “began a desperate battle against the sea,” wrote Charlotte Observer writer and photographer Jim Dumbell. Workers continued their prevention effort into Saturday as the storm produced twelve-foot waves that pounded the shore. The Associated Press picked up the story on October 27, which reads like a shorter version of Dumbell’s feature. The following day, news reports announced that the National Park Service agreed to construct a jetty as a $60,000 stopgap measure. An Associated Press article described the jetty as an “underground metal wall.”

An article the following year by National Geographic writer John L. Eliot revealed that the then recent round of erosion actually arose in early March 1980 after a strong nor’easter socked the eastern United States as far south as Florida, where the temperature plummeted to thirty degrees Fahrenheit in West Palm Beach. The North Carolina coast was hit with thirty inches of snow and sixty mile-per-hour winds. More importantly at the lighthouse, ten-foot waves battered the shore when high tides were the highest since the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962. After the October storm described above, another struck in December requiring more emergency buttressing along the shore near the foundation.

Addenda (September 9, 2021): Governor Hunt gave a prepared speech on 10 November 1981 during the three-day meeting of the travel council, making that date a candidate for the date Morton made the above portrait. The meeting took place at the Holiday Inn–Woodlawn in Charlotte. Also, The State published one of Morton’s color transparencies made during the same flight on the cover of its January 1982 issue.

World Photography Day, 2021

Hugh Morton showing his camera to a child
Hugh Morton showing his camera to a child. An unknown photographer made this photograph during Morton’s World War II service with the 161st Signal Photographic Company in the Pacific Islands.

Today is World Photography Day, and thus a good day to revive A View to Hugh. During the past year and a half, I needed to take a hiatus from this blog because it was close to impossible to write posts while working from home. A few days ago I returned to working inside Wilson Library (that is, not from home) where I now have regular access to the Morton collection and, in some ways even more importantly, research material to consult when writing the stories that accompany Morton’s photographs. I’m still getting settled into a new office within the building, so this will not be a long post . . . just something to say the blog is still alive.

I hope you have an opportunity to make a photograph on this annual celebration.  If you post a photograph to a social media platform, remember tag it #WorldPhotographyDay.  If you are not making a photograph, but would like to explore the world using your computer, you may browse the online collection of Morton’s photographs by location, including nearly 150 images from the South Pacific.

Happy Arbor Day

Boy posing on sand dune next to dead tree
Boy in cap posing on sand dune next to a dead, gnarled tree. Probably taken in Wilmington, N. C. area during the 1950s or early 1960s.

It continues to be difficult for me to write in-depth blog posts during the pandemic, so today’s offering simply provides an opportunity to explore the online collection of images by Hugh Morton.  Today is Arbor Day, so I made a quick search for the term “tree,” which produced 130 results.  Some photographs feature trees, others only have a tree in them (such as an animal in a tree).

Why not take a few moments to browse through the Hugh Morton’s tree photographs? Have a favorite?  Please share it in the Comments. (The best way to do that is to click on “Reference URL” found on the lefthand side under the Search box, then copy and paste that URL into your comment.)

Roy Williams announces retirement

The anguished facial expression of UNC Head Basketball Coach Dean Smith (second from left) makes you wonder if assistant coach Roy Williams, far left, is doing his happy dance . . . or not . . . during UNC's 1982 East Regional Final played at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 21, 1982. NCAA East Regional Final, Reynolds Coliseum, Raleigh, NC. Others on the UNC bench (L to R) are #54 Warren Martin, #43 Jeb Barlow, #51 Timo Makkomen, #32 John Brownlee, Warren Martin.
The anguished facial expression of UNC Head Basketball Coach Dean Smith (second from left) makes you wonder if assistant coach Roy Williams, far left, is doing his happy dance . . . or not . . . during UNC’s 1982 East Regional Final played at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina on March 21, 1982. NCAA East Regional Final, Reynolds Coliseum, Raleigh, NC. Others on the UNC bench (L to R) are #54 Warren Martin, #43 Jeb Barlow, #51 Timo Makkomen, #32 John Brownlee, Warren Martin.

UNC Head Basketball Coach Roy Williams announced his retirement today after eighteen years at the helm. Williams can be found inside many Hugh Morton photographs, twenty-five of which can be seen in the online collection.

Williams has not been a focal point of a blog post here on A View to Hugh, but  his name appears in a dozen or so posts. If you would like to revisit any of those posts, simply enter his name in the search box and see if any of the results looks like interesting reading to you.

I’ll be working in Wilson Library next week, so I will look to see what I can assemble for a fitting blog post. In the meantime, please explore the online collection and A View to Hugh for glimpses into the stellar career of Roy Williams.

Stephen and Hugh

1950s portrait of photographer Hugh Morton with Graflex camera.
1950s portrait of photographer Hugh Morton with Graflex camera.

“Are you familiar with the photographer, Hugh Morton?”

Bob Anthony, Curator of the North Carolina Collection posed this question to me early in the process of being interviewed for the collection’s Photographic Archivist in mid December 2002.  I don’t recall my exact answer, but it was an interview-appropriate, “No.” On my return home after the interview, I carried with me a copy of the booklet Sixty Years With a Camera. And now, after eighteen years in the position, I can happily answer that question, “Yes, very much so.” And yet, there is still so much to learn.

Unlike Jack Hilliard, I never had a chance to develop a friendship with Hugh Morton. I did meet him briefly twice: the first time was in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room in Wilson Library prior to an exhibition opening in the North Carolina Gallery coinciding with the publication of Hugh Morton’s North Carolina in October 2003; the second was on Grandfather Mountain near the Mile High Swinging Bridge in May 2004 when I was a participant on the Tar Heel Bus Tour. At least my two encounters were on grounds sacred to Morton: UNC and GFM. (Unfortunately, the digital photographs I made during the bus tour became corrupted several years ago and I can no longer open them.)

https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/morton_highlights/id/274

I’ve been watching Ken Burns’s television documentary series Jazz the past several weeks.  I missed the series the first time it aired in 2001, so its all new to me despite being twenty years old.  I would have loved to have lived during the music’s evolutionary years! Instead, I have come to love jazz through recordings and documentaries. I can still remember where I was the first time I heard Billie Holiday’s voice more than three decades ago.

Equally, I would have loved knowing Hugh Morton during the 1930s and 1940s, experiencing the music and photographing the concerts. I would have gladly skipped the World War II years, but the post-war period through 1960 or so has become my favorite period of Morton’s photography.  Much like Morton, a lot of my own photographs are the result of wandering the countryside with cameras in the back of my car. Instead, I have come to known Morton through his photography, my research and writing about it, and through the design and production of the “uncommon retrospective” exhibition.

Curatorship and historical writing require objectivity, but luckily, I’ve been able to develop a “virtual friendship” with Morton by exploring and investigating his photographs and negatives, and by sharing those experiences with those who regularly read or have chance encounters with A View to Hugh.  The opportunity to do so is a cherished gift, one worth remembering on Morton’s 100th.

Jack and Hugh, 1958

Julian Scheer and Bob Quincy
On November 17, 1958 the Rocky Mount Telegram published this Hugh Morton photograph (cropped tighter) of Julian Scheer (left) and Bob Quincy with a caption informing readers that their book, Choo Choo—The Charlie Justice Story, would be published on November 29. The Charlotte News, for which Scheer and Quincy were columnists, published the same photograph three days earlier. The photograph likely dates from September 20, when Scheer wrote a column about the game, or a subsequent UNC home game day at Kenan Stadium.

It was late summer, 1958. I was getting ready for my first year at UNC. In the mail one afternoon, my dad got a UNC General Alumni Association newsletter. Inside was a list of several UNC authors who had books coming out soon, including Bob Quincy and Julian Scheer and their biography of my all time hero Charlie Justice. The newsletter said the book, titled Choo Choo: The Charlie Justice Story, would be out on November 29, 1958.

https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/morton_highlights/id/712
Bob Quincy, Julian Scheer, and Charlie Justice with copy of Choo Choo: The Charlie Justice Story, circa September 1958.

I left for school on September 18th and soon after I arrived on campus, I visited the Intimate Bookshop on Franklin Street. (It was the original “Intimate,” the one with the squeaky wooden floors). The man at the store said they expected to have the book in time for Christmas.

November 29th was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and I was at home in Asheboro, so I went downtown to see if Scott’s Book Store had the book. They didn’t, so as soon as I got back to school on Monday I went to the Intimate, and they had the book. I got it, went back to my room in Cobb Dorm and read it in one sitting. It was great and I could not believe the magnificent pictures taken by Hugh Morton. I knew who Morton was. I had seen his name under sports pictures in the newspapers, many of which I had clipped and pasted in a huge scrapbook. And my dad and I had also visited Grandfather Mountain in August of 1953 and had walked across the Mile High Swinging Bridge.

I wanted to send Mr. Morton a letter and tell him how much I liked the pictures, but I didn’t have his address. I thought I had heard he lived in Wilmington but, since I had no address, I decided to call Grandfather Mountain and leave a message with the switchboard operator. So, on Tuesday afternoon, December 2, 1958 . . . I called.

When the operator answered, I introduced myself and told her why I was calling. Much to my surprise she said, “Mr. Morton is here in the office, would you like to speak with him?”

“Yes” is all I could get out.

And then a few seconds later . . . “Hello Jack, this is Hugh Morton.”

We talked for almost ten minutes. Turns out we were both huge fans of Charlie Justice. And because of that connection, Hugh Morton and I became friends—a friendship that lasted for almost forty-eight years, from December 2, 1958 to June 1, 2006.

Happy one hundredth, Hugh

Hugh Morton posed holding camera in snowy scene
Hugh Morton

On this day 100 years ago, Hugh Morton was born.

Every time I sat down to write about the significance of today I got serious writer’s block, becoming a bit overwhelmed about needing to say something, well, significant. I kept digging through the Morton collection’s finding aid and period newspapers available online, looking for something that had yet to be said. In short, there is just too much to say about a person’s seventy-one years with a camera without writing a book for a blog post.

Photographers work one frame, one exposure, at at time. They often explore a subject by creating multiple images—varying their distance, changing their angle of view, switching to a different focal length lens, and altering the plane or depth of focus.

A View to Hugh launched on November 1, 2007, more than fourteen years ago. During that time, we have deliberately focused on stories told through Hugh Morton’s photographs. I decided during the blog’s early days to “focus on the photographs, not the person.” The arrival of one’s one hundredth birthday, however, finds one looking more at the person. Enough time has passed since beginning the blog. Our distance from the subject has lengthened. We can now change our angles of view, switch lenses, alter our focus. A 100th anniversary provides the space to do so.

Over the course of this coming year we hope to bring more biographical perspective to our writing. It befits the celebration of someone’s 100th birth year—and it is certainly less daunting than trying to squeeze a tome into a short story. Our subject will still be the photographs of Hugh Morton, but we aspire to bring more biographical perspective to the storytelling. For example, I have been exploring how and when Morton began his involvement with the Carolinas Press Photographers Association, eventually becoming its vice president and then president. Another example will be a story on the newspaper column he briefly wrote.

And what about next year? Shall we get back to basics and call it Morton 101? We shall see.

New name added to Morton’s presidential list

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. during a confirmation hearing held by the European Affairs Subcommittee of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The editor cropped this detail from a negative by Hugh Morton.

During his seventy years with a camera, we believe Hugh Morton photographed eleven United States presidents—from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Then, on January 20, 2021, we added a twelfth name to the list.

It was Wednesday, March 4, 1987: Hugh Morton and Smith Barrier, Greensboro News & Record Sports Editor, drove to Washington, D.C. Likely, Barrier was going to cover the 1987 ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament, to be played at Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland, and Morton had arranged interviews and photo sessions with United States Senator Jesse Helms and Tar Heel newsman David Brinkley for his forthcoming book Making a Difference in North Carolina (published in 1988) with co-author Ed Rankin Jr. The initial link above will carry you to the first of a three-part series describing their trip.

Morton wrote in his 1996 book, Sixty Years with a Camera, Ed Rankin and Jesse Helms were roommates when they got out of school and worked for newspapers in Raleigh. So when Ed and I authored the book, Making a Difference in North Carolina, the senator spread the red carpet for us in Washington.” Morton photographed Helms in different settings, including a hearing by the European Affairs subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on March 5, 1987. On that day the subcommittee debated Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Jack F. Matlock Jr. to be ambassador to the Soviet Union. Matlock was a native of Greensboro and a Duke University graduate. (The Senate confirmed Matlock’s appointment later that month.)

Morton also photographed other senators during the subcommittee hearing, one of whom was Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. Biden began his first term in the Senate in January 1973, just thirty years old after being elected at the age of twenty-nine.  Two years later, Biden’s fellow senators elected him to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

Clairborne Pell was the committee’s chairman when Morton visited, having succeeded Indiana’s Richard Lugar (1985–1987).  Two decades later, Biden and Helms would combine to chair that committee for ten of the next fourteen years, interrupted only by a second Lugar chairmanship.

  • Jesse Helms: 1995–2001
  • Joseph R. Biden Jr.: 2001–2003
  • Richard G. Lugar: 2003–2007
  • Joseph R. Biden Jr.: 2007–2009

Morton also photographed Lugar that day. A photograph of Biden, Helms, and Lugar by Morton appears on page 290 of Making a Difference in North Carolina. That negative is in the collection but has not been digitized, so here is a similar scene from the hearing:

https://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/morton_highlights/id/1137
Left to right: United States Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr., Jesse Helms, and Richard Lugar.

Nearly thirty-four years after Morton made these photographs, on January 20, 2021, the United States inaugurated Biden as its forty-sixth president—thus bringing Morton’s list of presidential photographs to twelve. Here’s Morton’s presidential list, with links to online images:

In full disclosure, here is the full view of Morton’s negative used at the beginning of this post, without cropping.

Joseph R. Biden and Jesse Helms photograph without crop
Morton’s photograph of Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Jesse Helms, without the cropping above that only shows Biden.

A View to Hugh in 2021

Hugh Morton feeding bear
Hugh Morton feeding a black bear from his hand, in the Grandfather Mountain black bear habitat.

Happy New Year, 2021!  It has been essentially impossible to maintain A View to Hugh during the past ten months during the coronavirus pandemic. Our blog entries are stories centered around photographs and negatives from the Hugh Morton collection, but I did not have access to the physical collection while working from home. Also, I have been creating an online exhibition with a team of co-workers that has been very research intensive. As a result, this blog has been hibernating like a bear . . . but during the time of year when bears are not in hibernation.

The good news for 2021 and A View to Hugh is that I will soon be able to access the Morton collection negatives and prints every three weeks on a cyclical schedule starting January 11.  During those weeks I will be working inside Wilson Library on the “Digital First” team digitizing Special Collections’ materials requested by remote researchers.  After my four-hour shifts, I will have a few hours in the afternoon to work on my typical tasks.

This change in my work environment comes on the eve of the one hundredth anniversary of Hugh Morton’s birth on February 19. As the calendar continues, my next work week inside Wilson Library will be February 1–5. That schedule provides two weeks to prepare blog posts ahead of Morton’s centennial birthday.

Are there new topics you would like us to explore or previous posts you’d like us to revisit? Please let us know and we’ll do our best to cover the topic this celebratory year.

A UNC friend like no other

In early 2004, when Hugh Morton selected a panel of “Golden Age” UNC football athletes to help sculptor Johnpaul Harris in preparing the Charlie Justice statue, Joe Neikirk was first on the list. After all, Neikirk had originated the statue idea.  On this day, May 29, 2020 Neikirk would have turned 92 and Hugh Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks back at the life and times of Joseph Randolph Neikirk, a friend of Carolina like no other.

group during Charlie Justice statue dedication day, November 5, 2004
Charlie Justice statue dedication day, November 5, 2004 (left to right): Woody Durham, “Voice of the Tar Heels”; Charlie Justice teammates Art Weiner (All America end), Joe Neikirk (center); and then UNC Athletic Director Dick Baddour. Photograph by Hugh Morton.

Joe Neikirk arrived on the UNC campus in the fall of 1946 and went out for the football team. He played center and was a kickoff specialist for the freshman team at first, but late in the 1946 season, when varsity center Chan Highsmith was injured, Neikirk became the varsity back-up center . . . just in time for the 1947 Sugar Bowl game. During the ’47, ’48, and ’49 seasons, Neikirk became an extremely important part of what would become known as “The Golden Era” of Carolina football. During the 1948 season, Neikirk was included in one of the most famous Hugh Morton pictures taken during the era. The image was taken following Carolina’s historic win over Duke on November 20, 1948. All-America Charlie Justice’s 43-yard-touchdown run set the stage for the 20-to-0 win and following the game Neikirk, Bob Cox, and Bob Mitten carried Justice off the field.

Charlie Justice on shoulders of teammates
1948: #22 UNC tailback Charlie Justice on shoulders of teammates following 20-0 win over Duke in Kenan Stadium; #63 UNC center Joe Neikirk; #42 UNC left Guard Bob Mitten; #69 UNC right end Bob Cox; #81 UNC right tackle Ted Hazelwood (background left). Cropped version of photograph appears on cover of 4 December 1948 issue of THE STATE, the November 1948 issue of THE ALUMNI REVIEW, and the 1949 YACKETY YACK.

Morton’s image is one of the most reproduced Charlie Justice pictures and was featured on the cover of The State magazine issue of December 4, 1948. Morton always included the picture in his slide shows and in his 1988 book, “Making a Difference in North Carolina” (page 256), and his 2003 book, Hugh Morton’s North Carolina (page 165). The image is also in the 1949 UNC yearbook The Yackety Yack (page 259).

Neikirk graduated from Carolina on June 5, 1950 receiving a BA degree in Education. On July 29, 1950 he married the love of his life Eleanor (Nonnie) McClure. Following his graduation, Neikirk became the head football coach at Mooresville High for three years. In 1955, he began his career at an entry-level position with the Norfolk and Western Railway and progressed through numerous positions.

During his time with the railway, he always kept his eye on the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, and returned often for reunions and special events honoring his time and his teammates at UNC.  One of those special reunions came during the weekend of October 30th, 1971 when the teams of ’46, ’47, and ’48 celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary, highlighted by the return of their head coach Carl Snavely to Chapel Hill after almost twenty years. Joe and Nonnie Neikirk traveled for the reunion from Chagrin Falls, Ohio where Joe was Vice President of the Erie Lackawanna Railway Company. Part of the celebration was a Hugh Morton slide show.

When Joe and Nonnie came back to Chapel Hill for graduation/reunion weekend in May of 1989, Joe had advanced to Vice Chairman of Norfolk Southern Corporation and he took part in the 1989 edition of “Saturday Morning in Chapel Hill,” before a full house in Memorial Hall. Neikirk’s teammate Bob Cox conducted that morning’s program, “Why Did We Have It So Good and What Made Us Different.” Nine Tar Heel legends shared stories of their time at Carolina in the program, and once again, a Hugh Morton slide show kicked off the proceedings.

In 1993, Neikirk retired from Norfolk Southern, and he and Nonnie moved back to Chapel Hill. Soon after their return, Joe began working on a major project celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Carolina’s first bowl trip, the 1947 Sugar Bowl. He arranged for a Norfolk Southern train with twenty-two cars to transport ninety UNC team members, managers, wives, and special guests to New Orleans to meet up with about forty members of the University of Georgia’s 1947 Sugar Bowl team.

That Sugar Bowl reunion trip was one to be remembered. Gus Purcell, a tailback on the ’47 team said, “the Sugar Bowl trip was a dream come true.” Said Hugh Morton, “It was really a fun trip, and I would not take anything for having gone on it.”  And UNC All America end Art Weiner said, “Our trip was great and we are still marveling that Joe Neikirk could put it together.” Author and artist Harold Styers, in his book, Hark the Sound: A Time Remembered and a Sentimental Journey declared Neikirk the “Most Valuable Player” of 1997.

Neikirk illustration as MVP

Two years later, UNC’s “Voice of the Tar Heels” Woody Durham paired with the UNC General Alumni Association to present a series of programs called “History of Sports at Carolina: Football.” On September 27, 1999 he featured “The Justice Years 1946-1949.” Neikirk, Paul Rizzo, a blocking back on the Golden Era teams, and Art Weiner, the All America end did a marvelous job of reliving that fabulous era. It was at this gathering that I met Joe Neikirk’s wife Nonnie, a delightful lady. We talked at length about films from the Golden Era. Over the next few months, I sent her and Joe several cassettes with game film from the era.

On December 7, 2000, I received a letter from Joe with holiday greetings, and then he said,” Jack, I’m laying the ground work on a project that I’ll be in touch with you about after the first of the Year.” That project turned out to be the Charlie Justice statue project. He teamed with Hugh Morton, who in turn brought sculptor Johnpaul Harris to the project. Morton also selected a team of Justice Era players to aid Harris. The team made two visits to Harris’ Asheboro studio. Of course Morton brought his camera on each of those visits. One of those pictures is in his 2006 book, Hugh Morton: North Carolina Photographer (page 155).

Charlie Justice statue on a flatbed trailer
The Charlie Justice statue on a flatbed trailer before it was put in place on November 4, 2004 (Left to right) Joe Neikirk, former UNC system president Dr. William C. Friday, and sculptor Johnpaul Harris. Photograph by Hugh Morton.

On Thursday, November 4, 2004, the Morton team gathered at the Kenan Football Center to put the 900-pound-statue in place.

Justice statue dedication
The Charlie Justice statue dedication day, November 5, 2004 with Justice-era players gather in front of the statue. Photograph by Hugh Morton.

The following day, under a beautiful Carolina blue sky, the statue was dedicated. Moderator UNC’s Athletic Director Dick Baddour introduced Tar Heel dignitaries and former players. Of course, one of those players was Neikirk. It was during his remarks that something happened that will never be forgotten.

Just as Neikirk said, “I can’t help but believe that Charlie and Sarah are looking down with pride,” the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower chimed out the quarter-hour. Neikirk raised his hands and looked up into the Carolina blue sky. In describing the incident UNC football historian Lee Pace said “No one present believed there was anything coincidental about it.”

In addition to his sense of humor and quick wit, Joe Neikirk was a great story teller. On March 30, 2006, the late Dr. Ron Hyatt teamed with the GAA to present a look back at Carolina’s Golden Era. Neikirk teamed with fullback Walt Pupa, and ends Bob Cox and Ed Bilpuch to tell some stories from the era. Neikirk’s story initiated a standing ovation from those gathered at the Hill Alumni Center. The story goes like this:

Four days after Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey for the Presidency, Carolina played William & Mary in historic Kenan Memorial Stadium, on November 6, 1948.  Carolina was ranked third in the country and had won thirteen straight games, but William & Mary came to play.  With the score tied at seven and time running out, Carolina had the ball at its own 21 yard line. Billy Hayes went back to pass. He spotted Max Cooke at the 28 and let it fly, but William & Mary’s Joe Mark cut in front of Cooke and made the interception. When Hayes finally got Mark on the ground, the ball was at the Carolina 8 . . . just as the gun sounded to end the game. William & Mary’s All-America Jack Cloud immediately ran up to referee Mr. Dandelake pleading for a time out. Neikirk was standing beside the referee, as he said, “Son, the d— game is over.” Neikirk added “the tie wrecked our season,” but Carolina went on to a 9-0-1 season. By the way, that 1948 Tar Heel team was just last week ranked as the second best UNC football team of all time by the website Tar Heel Illustrated.

Joe Neikirk served on numerous civic and philanthropic boards, including Virginia Institute of Marine Science and William and Mary’s Board of Visitors. He also served as a board member of the UNC Educational Foundation. In gratitude to the University for his opportunity, Neikirk endowed a football scholarship, and in recognition for his distinguished career, Norfolk Southern Foundation established a professorship in the School of Education in his honor.

Joseph Randolph Neikirk passed away on December 22, 2012—two and a half years before the love of his life Eleanor McClure Neikirk passed on June 3, 2015. During their sixty-two years of marriage they raised four sons.

Joe Neikirk will forever be remembered as a member of the greatest generation, who never forgot his UNC Tar Heel roots.