Today marks the 102nd anniversary of Hugh Morton’s birth, and what better way to honor the day than to share the news that Photographs by Hugh Morton: An Uncommon Retrospective is on display in Grandfather Mountain’s new Wilson Center for Nature Discovery through Memorial Day. Hours vary: it can be viewed daily through March 16, then weekends through May 14, then daily once more through Memorial Day. This will be the exhibition’s eleventh venue in ten years (including a two-year hiatus during the pandemic) since its debut at Appalachian State University’s Turchin Center for the Arts in September 2013. I’ll be participating in a program at Grandfather Mountain to be held during the last days of the exhibition. I’ll update this blog post when the details become established.
To mark both of these occasions, I found the above negative depicting Morton’s first retrospective. It opened on November 6, 1980 at Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and featured 100 of his favorite images. In addition to Morton’s photographs, the planetarium displayed thirty portraits painted by sports artist Lamar Sparkman, and billed the show as a two-man exhibition.
Today marks the 101st anniversary of Hugh Morton’s birth. Despite the difficulties of keeping the blog as active as it once was, this is a day that needs to be remembered.
The number 101 is commonly assigned to introductory collegiate classes. Seems it is also quite the prime number! For A View to Hugh, “Hugh Morton 101” will need to be a return to basics. As my duties have evolved and the photographic collections have grown over the past twelve years to 3.25 million items, it becomes more challenging for me to carve out the time required to work on long-form posts that I truly love to research and write. The pandemic has also hindered Jack Hilliard’s ability to research and write his contributions to the blog.
Nonetheless, there has been noteworthy work completed on the Morton collection behind the scenes. Prior to the pandemic, we had a few thousand Morton negatives scanned at high resolution sufficient to meet the federal preservation digitization standards. While many of these negatives had been scanned when Elizabeth Hull was processing the collection, many others had not—and none had been scanned at high resolution. In fact, there was no accepted standard in the field at the time. We scanned negatives at a moderate level to assist with processing the collection, and also serve many researchers basic needs.
A few years ago, I examined each and every 3×4-inch negative and all 4×5 negatives made prior to circa 1970 in the Morton collection in order to choose what would be digitized. All tallied, more than 4,400 negatives now have preservation-level scans. (For the technologically interested, the file sizes for 4×5-inch negatives routinely exceed 630 megabytes. A future post will dig deeper into the project.) And that is why it is time to get back to basics. By the end of March, I will have completed a plan for making those scans—along with several hundred more made from the Bayard Wootten and the Colvin M. Edwards collections—available to users.
Many of these newly scanned negatives are unidentified, which will enable us to return to the early days of the blog when we could post images for which we knew little to nothing and many people would contribute their knowledge or ideas toward their identification. The scene above is an example of a negative that had never been scanned before and the person is unidentified. Here’s looking forward to an active year at “V2H” as we introduce more Hugh Morton images to the world. Happy 101st, Mr. Morton!
“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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
On Thursday, November 4, 2004, the Morton team gathered at the Kenan Football Center to put the 900-pound-statue in place.
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.
“Danny was one of the greatest Tar Heels to come through Chapel Hill having starred in both football and baseball, as well as playing basketball on the freshman team. . . . He was respected and loved by many and will be missed. On behalf of the Carolina Football Family, we send our deepest condolences to Danny’s family and friends.”
UNC Head Football Coach Mack Brown, January 19, 2020
The Tar Heel nation has lost a legend. In the early morning hours of January 19, 2020, Danny Talbott lost his nine-year battle with cancer. Hugh Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard has a look at the life and times of Joseph Daniel Talbott III . . . who everyone called Danny.
It was Wednesday November 26, 2014, the day before Thanksgiving. UNC football great Danny Talbott was in his third year of battling multiple myeloma, a cancer that attacks plasma blood cells. He was being treated at the Outpatient Infusion Center of the North Carolina Cancer Hospital in Chapel Hill. He talked about his condition: “If I die, then I go to heaven. If I beat this, then I get to stick around and give my friends a hard time. It’s a win-win.”
Danny Talbott was noted for his sense of humor and is one of the most revered athletes in UNC history, having played football, baseball, and freshman basketball during his time in Chapel Hill from 1963 to 1967. Over the years, when books have been written about sports at UNC, Danny Talbott is included as an important part of that history. Author Ken Rappoport, in his 1976 book Tar Heel: North Carolina Football, describes Talbott as one of head coach Jim Hickey’s “most electrifying players.” Phil Ben, in his 1988 book Tar Heel Tradition: 100 Years of Sports at Carolina, calls Talbott “a brilliant all-round athlete.” And when Woody Durham compiled the book Tar Heels Cooking for Ronald’s Kids also in ’88, he included Danny’s recipe for peanut butter fudge.
In addition to the photograph above (not previously scanned before this blog post) during the second game of the season versus Michigan State, photographer Hugh Morton caught up with starting quarterback Talbott on opening day after the North Carolina State game . . .
and along the sideline during Carolina’s contest against Wake Forest the following Saturday on October 3.
Danny was the ACC football player of the year in 1965 with 1,477 yards of total offense, and was 11 of 16 for 127 passing yards to lead Carolina to a 14 to 3 upset win at Ohio State under their head coach Woody Hayes in the second game of the season.
On October 30, 1965, Georgia came into Chapel Hill for a game in Kenan. On that Saturday afternoon, Danny Talbott ran and passed for 318 total yards, eclipsing Charlie Justice’s single game offensive record (also set against Georgia back in 1948), by 14 yards. Talbott called it one of his greatest thrills.
When Carolina went into Duke Stadium on November 20, 1965, for the 52nd meeting between the two rivals, the Blue Devils dominated the game; but for a brief moment near the end of the first quarter, the Tar Heels took the lead thanks to Talbott. Author Bill Cromartie, in his 1992 book Battle of the Blues describes the moment: trailing 6 to 0 and “facing a fourth-and-one at the seven, Danny Talbott swung wide, broke a couple of tackles, leaped over defensive back Art Vann, and scored. Talbott also converted, giving his team a 7 to 6 lead.”
In September 1966, five years before he became “The Voice of the Tar Heels,” the late Woody Durham produced a Charlie Justice documentary at WFMY-TV in Greensboro titled “Choo Choo: Yesterday and Today.” I had the honor of being a production assistant for that program. In the program, Woody said:
Since the glorious days of the Justice era in the late 40s Carolina has searched in vain for Choo Choo’s replacement—the one player who might possibly possess his unique triple-threat ability. Every few years some outstanding Tar Heel player is compared with the legendary Justice, and this fall that comparison will be made of quarterback Danny Talbott. After outstanding seasons as both a sophomore and junior, the 6-foot, 185-pound Rocky Mount native stands on the threshold of what could well be a magnificent senior year…” [Danny was chosen] “as both the ‘Football Player and Athlete of the Year’ in the Atlantic Coast Conference last season.
Talbott was Co-Captain in ‘66 as well as cover boy for the UNC 1966 football Media Guide and the 1966 NCAA Record Book. In the third game of that season, Talbott led the Tar Heels to a 21 to 7 upset win over eighth-ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Daily Tar Heel banner headline from October 2, 1966 says it all:
In a later-life-interview Talbott would say, “that was sure fun . . . it’s a great thrill to think back on going to a place like Michigan and turning a crowd of 88,000 into total silence.”
Earlier in that year, Talbott had led the 1966 Tar Heels to the College World Series of baseball. He made first-team ACC three years in a row with a career batting average of .357. In 1967, Talbott was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers but he decided to play professional baseball. He played one season of minor-league ball with the Baltimore Orioles’ farm team in Miami.
In ’68, he was back in the NFL, this time with the Washington Redskins as backup quarterback to Duke legend Sonny Jurgensen. After three seasons in DC, Talbott returned home to Rocky Mount and for the next thirty-three years he was a sales representative for Johnson & Johnson.
In the fall of 1999, UNC’s General Alumni Association presented a special series titled: “The History of Sports at Carolina: Football.” For six Monday nights, Woody Durham moderated a panel of Tar Heel greats talking about their time on the Carolina gridiron. On October 4, Danny Talbott joined Don Stallings and Junior Edge for a session titled “Moments to Remember.”
Health administrators at Nash UNC Health Care in Rocky Mount had planned for several years to build a multi-disciplinary cancer treatment center that could serve northeastern North Carolina. Early in 2017, they were brainstorming ideas to raise funds and target potential benefactors when the name Danny Talbott came up for discussion and one of the steering committee members said, “Why don’t we just name the center for Danny?” The idea took off from there for construction of a 16,100-square-foot cancer treatment facility.
On Thursday, February 1, 2018, UNC Cancer Care at Nash cut the ribbon that opened the doors to the Danny Talbott Cancer Center. “It’s the greatest honor I’ve ever received,” said Talbott. “I’ve never been so surprised in my life. It’s too hard to believe they would think enough of me and want to name a cancer center after me. It’s hard to put into words, it’s just amazing. I look forward to what the center will do in this part of North Carolina and maybe even Virginia. I can’t express enough what I think it’s going to do for this part of North Carolina.”
Twelve days short of the center’s second anniversary, Danny Talbott lost his nine-year cancer battle—a battle that he fought with courage, dignity, and a bit of humor. The UNC Tar Heel legend had given us seventy amazing years. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on January 20, 2020: “We mourn the loss of Rocky Mount native, UNC great and NC Sports Hall of Famer Danny Talbott. Great athlete and fine man who finally lost a courageous battle with cancer.”
Today, February 19, 2020 marks what would be Hugh Morton’s ninety-ninth birthday. It’s only fitting that an exhibition of his photography is currently on display at the Blowing Rock Art & History Museum . . . but the exhibition closes this coming Saturday so you’ll need get there sooner rather than later. There’s another venue waiting in the wings, but it will be a scaled down version of the retrospective (about sixty of the eighty-eight photographs) and will be many miles from the mountains.
Not too long ago, on November 1, A View to Hugh hit the twelve year mark from our very first blog post. On this day next year we will mark Morton’s 100th birthday. What topics would you like us to write about in the coming year that leads up to a centennial celebration? We’ve covered a lot of ground the past dozen years, but there is still so much of the collection that has yet to be explored. We’d love to hear from you . . . and then set our keyboards in motion. Please leave a comment and tell us about a subject of interest to you.
“He is a coon hunter, a rich man, an ex-whiskey runner, a good old boy who hard-charged Stock cars 175 mph…he is the lead-footed-chicken-farmer from Rhonda…the true vision of the New South.” —Tom Wolfe in Esquire, March 1965
On December 20, 2019, America lost its “last hero.” Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson lost his battle with Alzheimer’s at age 88. Over the years, Johnson crossed paths with photographer Hugh Morton a few times. Morton included a picture of Johnson in his 1988 book “Making a Difference in North Carolina” and also his 2003 book “Hugh Morton’s North Carolina.” On this day, one month after his passing, Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks back at the life and times of a NASCAR legend.
I remember hearing my dear friend the late Charlie Harville talk about having breakfast with Junior and Flossie Johnson on race days in Ingle Hollow. It was a tradition for media personnel to stop by and join racers, crews, and car owners for bacon, eggs and grits. Afterward, all would go down the road to the track where Junior Johnson entered his first race—a 100-miler—at age 16, in 1947 at the North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Johnson finished second that day; six years later, he set up a race team in 1953. Johnson began his full-time NASCAR career in 1955, winning five races and finishing sixth in the Grand National points race. In 1956, Junior was caught firing up his dad’s moonshine still and became entangled in a barbed wire fence while trying to escape. The conviction that followed put Johnson on a forced eleven-month, three-day sentence that took him away from NASCAR. (Johnson always made it a point of pride that the federal agents never caught him on the highway).
Once back at the track, Johnson continued winning. By 1959 he was considered a master at “short-track-racing.” In 1960, he got his first “superspeedway” win at the Daytona 500. Johnson made an important discovery while preparing for that race. He and his crew chief Ray Fox were trying to figure out how to increase their speed and during a test run at the track, Johnson noticed that when he moved in close behind a faster car his speed would also increase due to the faster car’s “slipstream.” Following that Daytona win, other drivers picked up Junior’s technique and the term “drafting” became a NASCAR tradition that continues today.
When Johnson retired as a driver following the 1966 season, he had fifty wins—eleven at major speedways. He then became one of the most successful crew chiefs and car owners in NASCAR history. He teamed with drivers including Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott, and Darrell Waltrip, among others. In all, his drivers won 139 races, which included six Winston Cup Championships: three with Waltrip and three with Yarborough. Darrell Waltrip said on December 21, 2019 on his Twitter account: “He became my boss and made me a champion. I loved that man. God Bless Jr. and his family. You were the greatest.”
On September 15, 1982 Junior Johnson was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame during a ceremony at Gardner-Webb College in Shelby, North Carolina. Photographer Hugh Morton was there that night when Master of Ceremonies Jim Thacker introduced Pat Preston, who in turned made the formal induction speech for Johnson. Morton’s picture of the hall’s Class of 1982 is in his 1988 book, Making a Difference in North Carolina, on page 160.
A little over three years later, on the day after Christmas in 1985, Junior Johnson received a full and unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan for his 1956 conviction in federal court for moonshining.
In 2004, he joined Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Richard Petty and Charlie Justice by having a stretch of highway named in his honor. An 8.5-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 421 from the Yadkin and Wilkes County line to the Windy Gap exit is named the “Junior Johnson Highway.” And he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
It was May of 2007 when Johnson teamed with Piedmont Distillers of Madison, North Carolina to introduce a moonshine product called Midnight Moon. Johnson became part owner of Piedmont Distillers, the only legal distiller in North Carolina at the time. Midnight Moon followed the Johnson family’s generations-old tradition of making moonshine—every batch produced in an authentic copper still and handcrafted in small batches. The ‘shine is a legal version of his famous family recipe, and is available in eight varieties that range from 70 to 100 proof. Junior described his moonshine as “Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best ‘shine ever.”
It seems as though everybody who knew Junior Johnson has a favorite “Junior” story. Scott Fowler, Charlotte Observer columnist, shared this story on twitter last month:
“NASCAR writer Tom Higgins once told me that Junior…was asked in the ‘70s if he ever went to the GM engineers for help. ‘Naw, but sometimes they come to me,’ he said.”
Greensboro News & Record columnist Ed Hardin added this story in the paper on December 21:
We were in Rockingham back in the late ‘80s, and a group of writers had followed Junior out to his pickup. Along the way, he stopped to sign autographs and pose for pictures. . . . When we finally got there, he reached into the bed and dragged a cooler down to the tailgate. Inside was a big pickle jar filled with cherries floating in a clear liquid. . . . And to this day, I remember Junior looking at me and giving me words of advice I still pass on to folks not accustomed to North Carolina cherries from Ingle Hollow.
‘Son,’ he said, ‘don’t eat two.”
Finally, Hugh Morton, in his 2003 book, Hugh Morton’s North Carolina, (on page 185) says this about the “Last American Hero”:
. . . if you go to a race or a car show and are able to obtain Johnson’s autograph in indelible ink on the lid of a quart fruit jar, you have a priceless souvenir.
Rest in Peace, Junior Johnson. You will be missed.