Rowan Legend: Charlie Gillispie passes away
Charles Gillispie Sr. died the day before Christmas. He was 79.
He was a versatile athlete. He was a speedy football star in his youth, a Gold Gloves boxer in the military, and a skilled golfer most of his life.
I had a chance to chat with Gillispie a few years ago, shortly after he’d recorded his 15th hole-in-one, and that’s when I realized that the “Charles Gillespie” I’d read newspaper stories about from J.C. Price’s football glory days and the Charlie Gillispie who was making all those aces were actually the same guy.
Gillispie, known to some as “Mr. Hole-In-One” was a world-class storyeller, and while his yarns always had the ring of truth, they almost sounded like tall tales.
Like that time when he was in the navy and played in a tournament in Little Creek, Va. His final scorecard read 67-68-91.
“And that was 91 with a hole-in-one,” he told me. “I was getting ready to hit a 15-foot putt for an eagle and accidentally tapped my ball and got a penalty. Then it went downhill.”
He had a wicked temper in his youth, but the discipline he got from Price football coach S.W. “Prof” Lancaster cured most of that, and the military life took care of the rest. He was Lancaster’s 130-pound quarterback in 1950 when Price’s Red Devils played Raleigh Booker T. Washington on the road for the state championship for black schools.
“We weren’t big, but we were tough,” Gillispie told me. “And Prof made more out of us than we knew we had.”
Price’s only loss that season was to Raleigh, and that one could’ve gone either way. Price historian Rufus Little had this to say about Gillispie on the football field when Gillispie was inducted into Price’s Hall of Fame.
“Charlie had such great peripheral vision he was impossible to defend,” Little said. “He’d look left and throw right. Then he’d look right and throw left. He drove defenses crazy.”
Gillispie enlisted in the U.S. Navy out of high school and served his country 21 years. He went to submarine school, but he hated confined spaces and spent his time on aircraft carriers. When the Korean War was hot, his ship made the run to Korea every 18 days.
Gillispie learned golf from legends. He caddied at the Country Club growing up in segregated Salisbury, and the caddies were allowed to play on Mondays.
“A.D. Dorsett let me use his clubs,” Gillispie said. “The caddies would play from sunup to sundown.”
The first of his many aces came in Guam, when he was 20, and the thermometer said 100. He had to buy a round of drinks for every sailor in the nearest bar. That was the tradition and that proved the most expensive shot of his life.
His second hole-in-one came when he was stationed in Seattle, and his ace total grew steadily over the years.
When he left the navy, he came back to Salisbury in 1973 and made a splash in local golf. He won big tournaments at Corbin Hills and McCanless. He was one of the first black golfers to compete in the Labor Day Four-Ball Tournament at the Country Club where he’d once caddied, but then he moved to Virginia. He stayed there 22 years, finally returning to Salisbury in the late 1990s.
Retirement gave him a chance to play golf almost daily. He shot 68 when he was 68. He made a handful of aces on No. 6 at McCanless.
“Just luck — hit it and hope,” he said with a laugh when I asked him about all those aces.
Like a pro, he always shot for the stick, not just the green. When I talked to him, he had just made a hole-in-one after a knee replacement.
When he was 71 in 2005, he holed a 5-iron from 165 yards for a double eagle two on the par 5 No. 3 hole at McCanless, and those “albatrosses” are much rarer than aces because they require back-to-back superb shots. Golfers have banked in holes-in-one off beavers, buses and birds, but no one has ever gotten lucky and made a double eagle.
I asked him about his favorite sports moment, figuring it had to be one of those golf shots — maybe that time the group behind him was rushing him a little bit, so he took a quick hack and knocked the ball straight in the hole.
But, no, his favorite moment came in football. He loved that game.
“I ran 99 yards with a kickoff once in the navy and six people missed me,” he told me. “I know that sounds crazy, but I’ll never forget that day.”
No one who had a chance to meet Gillispie will ever forget him. His obituary is in the Dec. 29 edition of the Post.