Chapel Hill News
Keller: Chapel Hill institution
Randy B. Young
CHAPEL HILL --
Once upon a Southern summer, better than three decades ago, my family descended
from the wide world into Chapel Hill for a family visit.
particularly steamy afternoon during our stay, my father took my younger brother
and I in tow for a tour of the University of North Carolina campus where he and
my mother had gone to school. Skipping the seemingly obligatory strolls past the
Bell Tower and Old Well however, he instead led us straight into the cool,
cavernous bowels of Woollen Gymnasium.
As we walked
by Room 47A, a gruff man materialized behind a barred window, like some caged
bear at the zoo, and grunted something unintelligible over the hum of large fans
that blew a constant breeze through long hallways.
my father shouted back with an audible smile that surprised me.
minutes, our family was splashing in the cool, refreshing waters of UNC's
Kessing Pool, courtesy of just one more generous gesture by UNC's former
equipment manager, Sarge Keller.
A wink from
Sarge felt like an "E Ticket," good for every ride on campus, and
proof positive that angels often dwell in the most surprising places.
For my father
and many others, Sarge's enduring presence and unfaltering character were part
of the reassuring predictability about UNC that, no matter what else changed,
all was still right with the world.
Early on the
morning of Jan. 19, John Joseph "Sarge" Keller Jr. died
at age 80. On that day, UNC and Chapel Hill lost a true friend and fixture, as
surely as if the blue had run out of the Carolina skies.
fellow longtime Chapel Hillian Milton Blackwood said a visit with Sarge was
almost obligatory for alumni who played basketball or football at UNC.
"A lot of
the athletes did come back to see Sarge," he said. "They'd known him
for so long."
Ron Hyatt, an
exercise and sport science professor and unofficial historian of UNC athletics,
said that a visit with Sarge was a first priority even for many undergrad
students returning from semester breaks.
students who would come back (to campus) and who would run down to see Sarge and
the people working in the basket room in Woollen Gym before they went to see
their professors," Hyatt said. "They liked the people down there --
they were real. Sarge and those like him gave a sense of balance to this
Sarge was also
the first to meet and greet some notable new faces in town.
arrived here in August of 1958, and Frank McGuire was out of town," 36-year
Tar Heel basketball coach Dean E. Smith said. "I was staying at Coach
McGuire's house that night with my family, and Sarge met us. From that day on,
he was there anytime he was needed."
never met a man like Sarge that I've known who wanted to help people so
Born in Fort
Knox, Tenn., Keller moved to Chapel Hill at age 7 and soon thereafter began
working in the athletics equipment storeroom known as "the Cage" with
his father (also known as Sarge).
dad worked in some capacity with the athletic department probably before Woollen
Gym was even completed in 1938," Hyatt said.
return from service during World War II, Keller took over his father's job as
equipment room manager at UNC and settled down to raise a family.
he got married, he and I double-dated," Blackwood said. He was dating Jean
Knight in Durham, and she had this friend, so he asked me to go with him several
times. Boy, he had a good set of wheels, too. He had this old Ford, which was a
nice looking car, and he kept it immaculate."
marry Jean, who worked for some time as athletics ticket manager at UNC and
began raising two daughters, Fran and Barbara.
Keller had no trouble responding "I do" to the critical question at
his own wedding, "No!" was the response of choice in the Cage, where
Sarge's crusty character was the stuff of legend.
the equipment storeroom manager at Woollen Gym's Cage, took over on Keller's
retirement in March 1983. Basnight said Keller instructed her that a seemingly
harsh demeanor came with the territory.
how he was," Basnight said. "If you had this job, you had to come
across like that. When folks come through that door, they want something. That's
from the days when we didn't have much to give.
told me that the first word out of your mouth has to be 'No!' Then you let them
work around that."
to understand what lengths a student will go to just to get an extra
towel," Hyatt explained, laughing.
came to expect and relish the treatment from Keller.
would really lay it on them," Hyatt said, breaking into an imitation:
"'Here you come again from your Whiteville, North Carolina ... Who do you
think you are, boy?' Sarge kept your ego in check, but he did it with humor and
The head team
manager for the 1982 NCAA Champion Tar Heel basketball team and owner of the
Blue Heaven museum, David Daly, said it helped to be in Keller's good graces.
of had to get on his good side," Daly said, chuckling. "But he always
sort of looked out after all of us -- especially the managers of the basketball
teams. He knew we had a tough job, and he helped us keep up with
someone so adept at giving a negative response by rote was also so positively
generous whenever anyone needed anything.
just one of those guys where, if anyone needed help, he was always there,"
Smith said, "from being a volunteer with the fire department to something
like going outside to help someone with a flat tire."
helped me out a lot of times in here with work," said Basnight. "I was
alone in here a lot when I first started, but he knew, if I had a family problem
or something and couldn't be here, he'd be right here: 'Oh, I can help you out.'
He'd do absolutely anything for you."
of that teddy-bear demeanor behind Keller's grizzly-bear growl was an unwavering
optimism and a natural ability for keeping things in perspective.
gonna be all right,'" Hyatt sang, with inflection. "Sarge always said
"A lot of
people would stop by the basket room when he was there," Blackwood
explained. "They'd complain about this and that or say, 'Carolina's sure
losing a lot.' Everybody would be complaining and all. But Sarge would always
say, 'Ah, don't worry. Everything's gonna be all right."
If the words
gave Keller an all-knowing aura, most agree that it was by design.
could expound on anything," Hyatt said, laughing. "I think it's fair
to say that Sarge was opinionated."
... And a bit
larger-than-life, Basnight said.
talk about Frank Kenan like they were old buddies -- like Frank was Sarge's
father," Basnight said. "There was nobody larger than Sarge in his own
Keller's ability to speak in bold tones on most any topic may have been a
by-product of having an involvement in virtually every facet of campus
athletics, a fact which was meticulously documented by Keller, a notorious
remember one day when I was shuffling stuff around here in the Cage to make more
room, what I found behind Sarge's desk were the plans to Carmichael
Auditorium," she said. "I know Sarge had a lot to do with all of that
-- right down to looking at the blueprints. This was in the days before state
purchasing, but it was like he had his hands in everything."
To this day, a
large dusty file cabinet in the back of the Cage contains hundreds of
photographs of sports figures -- from within and outside UNC -- all taken by
everyone come in here to look through this, from Woody Durham to the (Carolina
Collections) folks from Wilson Library," Basnight said. "Bit by bit,
some of these photos have been taken away, but it's all Sarge's stuff."
and I looked through that room when I first opened up my museum," Daly
said. "Our hands were black with dirt by the time we were through.
looked through there, and it wasn't even a lot of basketball photos -- it was
all the sports. We found an old picture of Frank McGuire. We also found an old
set of basketball rims Sarge had saved that Frank McGuire had had made smaller
(than regulation) to work on players' shooting."
But most agree
that what Keller did best at UNC was his job, and that was purely out of a love
for Carolina athletics.
always wanted to take care of everybody on the team so that all the players had
to worry about was playing; all the coaches had to worry about was
coaching," Daly explained.
else, it was Keller's huge heart and undying work ethic which gained him the
most respect over nearly four decades of continuous service.
never been a ball player to come through here that didn't treat Sarge with
respect," Smith said, "and he treated them all with respect. And all
of the guys that played at Woollen Gym and Carmichael -- they'd know Sarge
a legend as far as Carolina basketball and all Carolina athletics goes,"
Sarge's was a legacy of love for the place," Hyatt said. "Secondly, he
bought an esprit -- the Sarge Keller spirit -- to the place."
retirement nearly 19 years ago, Keller remained a presence on campus.
when he left," Basnight said, "but he continued to work (after
retirement) for Coach Smith and Coach Smith's basketball camps in the summers.
I'd work with him on that."
joke was that he'd never leave," Basnight added, wistfully. "We used
to say, 'Oh, Sarge, you won't know what to do. You're going to be down here
every day.' But I'd say he must've done a good job of retiring, because we
hardly ever saw him that much except around the time of basketball camps.
very, very loyal to Coach Smith."
and loyalty was mutual from the now-legendary coach, whose most recent book, A
Coach's Life: My 40 Years in College Basketball, was published in hardback just
months ago. Smith said the paperback edition, just issued last week, contains an
added feature which puts his gratitude into proper perspective.
"I was so
embarrassed that (Sarge's) name wasn't included in the 'thanks' for my book. I
was thanking everybody, and I had Sarge (written) down, but somehow, two lines
were left out of it by Random House. In the new paperback edition, I had that
Keller was notified of the change before he died. "He hadn't gotten to see
it -- I sent it to (his daughters) Fran and Barbara. But he heard about
too, owes a debt of gratitude to Sarge, if only for one wink, one
"All-Rides" ticket, and a bit of cool refuge on some ancient summer
day recalled by a friend called felicity.
everyone who ever played a sport at UNC wrote a book, most of the dedications
would also include a nod to the man called "Sarge."
was nobody like Sarge," Basnight said. "Nobody at all like Sarge."
But if UNC and
the world beyond the Hill seem a little less colorful since the loss of John
Joseph "Sarge" Keller, Jr. last month -- a little paler
perhaps -- then take heart in the wisdom Sarge loved to impart:
worry," Sarge would say, "everything's gonna be all right."