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.