The Chapel Hill News

February 20, 2002

Sarge Keller: Chapel Hill institution

Author: Randy B. Young

Edition: Final
Page: B1

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.

On a 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.

"Sarge!" my father shouted back with an audible smile that surprised me.

Within 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.

Friend and 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.

"We had 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 place."

Sarge was also the first to meet and greet some notable new faces in town.

"I 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."

"I've never met a man like Sarge that I've known who wanted to help people so much."

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).

"Sarge's dad worked in some capacity with the athletic department probably before Woollen Gym was even completed in 1938," Hyatt said.

Upon his 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.

"Before 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."

Keller would marry Jean, who worked for some time as athletics ticket manager at UNC and began raising two daughters, Fran and Barbara.

But while 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.

Gail Basnight, 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.

"You know 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.

"Sarge told me that the first word out of your mouth has to be 'No!' Then you let them work around that."

"You have to understand what lengths a student will go to just to get an extra towel," Hyatt explained, laughing.

Athletes even came to expect and relish the treatment from Keller.

"Sarge 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 with love."

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.

"You kind 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 everything."

Ironically, someone so adept at giving a negative response by rote was also so positively generous whenever anyone needed anything.

"He was 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."

"He 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."

More evidence of that teddy-bear demeanor behind Keller's grizzly-bear growl was an unwavering optimism and a natural ability for keeping things in perspective.

"'Everything's gonna be all right,'" Hyatt sang, with inflection. "Sarge always said that."

"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.

"Sarge 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.

"He would 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 world."

Basnight said 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 packrat.

"I 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 Keller.

"I've had 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."

"Sarge 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.

"We 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.

"He 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.

Above all else, it was Keller's huge heart and undying work ethic which gained him the most respect over nearly four decades of continuous service.

"There's 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 too."

"Sarge is a legend as far as Carolina basketball and all Carolina athletics goes," Daly added.

"First, Sarge's was a legacy of love for the place," Hyatt said. "Secondly, he bought an esprit -- the Sarge Keller spirit -- to the place."

After retirement nearly 19 years ago, Keller remained a presence on campus.

"I came 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."

"The old 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.

"He was very, very loyal to Coach Smith."

The respect 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 corrected."

Smith said 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 it."

This writer, 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.

And if 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."

"There 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:

"Don't worry," Sarge would say, "everything's gonna be all right."

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