I met Charlie "Choo-Choo" Justice in the fall of 1980. It was my first UNC home football
game Saturday behind the bar of the Pine Room Lounge at the Carolina Inn. Liquor by the drink had been passed the year before, and while the General Assembly had changed the law so liquor and wine could be sold on University property, they neglected to amend the law concerning beer. That first year the bar was open, you could bet a bourbon and ginger ale, a martini, or a glass of wine, but a bottle (or can or cup) of beer was nowhere to be found. In the midst of gallon plastic mayonnaise jugs filled with Bloody Mary mix and waiters antsy for their drink orders to be filled, in the midst of the madness of the day, was Charlie.
"Take your time," he said with an easy smile.
I was grateful for his patience. I had no idea who he was. I'm about as far from being a football fan as an individual could possibly be. But Charlie is far more than just a former Carolina football star. He's an icon. I quickly discovered who he was, and why he is so revered by everyone who knows him.
There were many more football Saturdays over the next 13 years. Charlie, his wife Sarah, and their son Ronnie, were always regulars during football season. At this time there was an unwritten, unspoken rule that no females were allowed to work in the Hill Room, the dining room adjacent to the Pine Room Lounge. Bill Milling, General Manager at that time, stuck his neck out and hired me to work behind the bar. I was the one and only full-time state-employed bartender in North Carolina.
So there I was, a 26 year-old female, attempting to keep in line a dining room staff of all male college kids. I can remember the guys talking about Charlie after the shift had ended. All of the waiters knew him. They all adored him. Being born and raised a Hoosier, not being a football fan, and having recently moved to North Carolina, I had never heard of him. It didn't take long though, before I too had formed a high opinion of Charlie. Not because of who he was, because of what he was - a truly nice person. When Charlie walked into the bar on a football Saturday, no matter how hectic the day was, I always smiled. He just did that to you, made you feel better just by appearing. He has this glimmer in his eyes.
It was Charlie who, back in the 40's, put UNC football on the map. It's said that in 1942, he punted 19 times for an average of 42.74 yards. Legend has it he scored 27 touchdowns and averaged 41.37 yards per touchdown run. The picture below that used to hang on the wall of the Pine Room shows Charlie kicking a football in his number 22 jersey and a helmet. Not much padding, which is a far cry from what we see on the fields today. At 170 pounds, Charlie wasn't a huge guy, but boy was he ever fast!
When Charlie and Sarah were in school at UNC, they lived in married student housing at the Carolina Inn. They both spoke fondly of those years, and always liked coming back to stay at the Inn. It brought back good memories for them. There were many occasions in the Pine Room when someone would approach Charlie and Sarah, hardly believing it was actually them, speaking of a game or a play from the past. Charlie always glowed.
Charlie even inspired a song, written by Orville Campbell. Mr. Campbell eventually came to
publish the Chapel Hill Weekly, but back in his college days he wrote
"All the Way Choo-Choo," a tribute to Charlie and his great talent on the football field. That's
not the only thing that was produced in honor of Charlie's talent on the field though. I walked into
an antique shop several years ago and spotted a board game titled "All the Way Choo-Choo." When I told Charlie and Sarah about it, they were completely surprised. They never even knew it existed.
Charlie is probably the most mild mannered individual I have ever met. Nothing rattles him.
While he does become animated when he talks about a game, in all the years I knew him at the Inn, I can honestly say I never remember him raising his voice in an angry manner, for any reason.
On a weekday evening one time, Charlie came in and sat down at the bar. I was
surprised to see him in the middle of the week and without Sarah. He said he was in town to receive an award. He asked to see the new picture I had behind the bar, remarked how cute it was (my kids), and asked about my family. He was always thoughtful like that. He had recently had bypass surgery, and folks at the Inn had heard he had encountered some difficulties during the operation. This was the first opportunity I had had to speak with him about it. He spoke quietly, saying that he heard the doctor say, 'I'm afraid we've lost him Sarah.' At that moment, something happened to Charlie. He said it was like an angel came and lifted him up
and brought him back. He wasn't quite ready to leave this earth yet.
Charlie and Sarah Justice were two of the nicest folks I met in my years at the Inn. I miss seeing them.
Charlie "Choo-Choo" Justice passed away at his home in Cherryville, N.C. on October 17, 2003. He was 79 years old. His beloved Sarah passed away a few months later.
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