Early in my career, I worked as a newspaper reporter for The Shelby Star, and my colleagues there bestowed on me a nickname: Lite Brite.
It was a small paper and I had to cover several different beats, but I quickly became known as the writer of choice for the happy features. I loved the personality profiles, the human interest pieces, the types of stories that would prompt a heartfelt phone call thanking me for the coverage.
Meanwhile my coworker Roberta, who sat in the desk next to me, was muckraking up a storm – digging up enough scandal to bring down more than a few public officials and rushing to the scene of every accident and violent crime. She wasn’t happy unless she was rubbing up against a bit of controversy, as I was content to put the spotlight on unearthing great (and happy) stories.
I share this snapshot of my newspaper days to explain a fundamental part of my personality – I am consistently optimistic and somewhat allergic to turbulence. Those are qualities which have made the past few months, both as an American and a member of the Pirate sports media, a bit hard to swallow.
Since political volatility in our nation is at an apex, it would be nice for Pirate fans if life within the bounds of their favorite athletic program was peaceful and buoyant. But the reality has been a bit different.
Fans with long perspective and exceptional patience are out there, of course, and their voices have helped temper those who fear East Carolina will never again find its way to the national sports stage. But there have certainly been dozens of happier eras in which to don the purple and gold, and New Year’s Day in Pirate Country will undoubtedly bring all manner of resolutions for 2018 to bring more triumphant times.
I will resolve along with you all, but for now, lacking definitive solutions, all I can offer is the preferred currency of my writing career – great stories about extraordinary people that I have had the privilege to write about in nearly two decades covering the ECU community. As a holiday gift, I offer snapshots of three Pirates who lived heroically and reflected the best of what Pirate athletics has to offer:
Younger generations of Pirates might pass by Christenbury Gym or see this legendary football coach’s image in the ECU Hall of Fame without knowledge of the extraordinary aspects of his too-brief life. Christenbury took over a struggling 0-8 football program in 1940, and in his second season, 1941, his team racked up seven straight victories. But then Japanese ships and planes attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting many student-athletes to enlist and leading to the cancellation of the season. That 7-0 mark remains the only undefeated season on the Pirate gridiron, but as a coach Christenbury left multiple chapters unwritten.
He continued to teach in the physical education department after the U.S. entered World War II, even organizing an intramural league on campus. But in February 1943 he felt called to contribute to the war effort, and he was sent to Port Chicago, California, to work loading munitions and other supplies heading for the Pacific theatre. On July 17, 1944, he was one of 300 people killed in a massive explosion at the port, considered the largest domestic wartime disaster in history. He was only 37.
In March 2006 VanSant died at the age of 70, after serving for decades as a coach an administrator for East Carolina. I had only met him a couple of times, but I wrote a column compiling memories from some of his former football players, colleagues and students in the classes he taught in the kinesiology department.
Put simply, I have never heard tributes like the ones these heartbroken men shared with me for that column. Several called him a second father, two people called him the most influential person in the history of Pirate athletics, and all grieved the loss of a fierce competitor, a master motivator and a man of uncommon character.
“I have more respect for Henry VanSant than probably any man I’ve ever met in my life,” said Jim Gudger, who played football for VanSant on the freshman team in the mid-‘60s. “I think he was probably the premier coach-motivator that we have had, period,” said Neal Hughes, another former player. VanSant’s wisdom and leadership are still sorely missed.
Bill Carson wasn’t just a coach or an interview subject. He was my friend. As ECU’s track and field coach for 40 years, he coached 70 All-Americans and 40 individual conference event champions and qualified athletes for the NCAA National Championships in 18 of his last 19 seasons. The day we met in 2004, I was writing a feature about future Olympic gold medalist LaShawn Merritt, who Carson had somehow recruited to East Carolina for a short stint as a Pirate runner.
As much success as Carson saw on the track, he represented so much more to me and the others who encountered him through those decades. He was a bit rebellious – he would take the money allotted to drive a large number of athletes in Chapel Hill and secretly use it to fly to a more prestigious meet in Arizona with a smaller team. He was a committed friend and Christian – he studied the Bible with Keith LeClair and other Pirate coaches during his time in Greenville, and later he prayed faithfully for LeClair as he battled ALS.
Carson was enjoying his retirement in the N.C. mountains when he died in 2012 at the age of 75. He was loyal, he was a great storyteller, and he was unfailingly humble for someone who had seen just about everything in the world of track and field. Today’s coaching climate isn’t really built for a man like Carson, but I find myself wishing it was.
So there they are – a few small story packages, packed with character, personality and leadership. Christenbury, VanSant and Carson are irreplaceable, but I look forward to finding the men and women on the fields and courts at East Carolina who carry some portion of the qualities that made them Pirate legends.