Sports figures, doctors, community leaders among those who left us in 2013

SALISBURY — As with every year, 2013 will be remembered, in part, for the people we lost.

What follows are some of the notable local deaths that occurred in 2013. Most of those mentioned do not include deaths related to crimes or traffic accidents.


The Rev. Bill Adams, a leader behind North Hills Christian School and one of the leading Civitans in the Salisbury club’s history, died Nov. 16 at age 74.

“He had a heart for serving other people and lived his faith,” said Matt Mitchell, former head of North Hills Christian. “It wasn’t just belief, it was action.”

Day in and day out, Horace Billings fashioned a Hall of Fame career in journalism, most notably as sports editor of the Salisbury Post from 1948-1988.

Billings died Oct. 23 at the age of 85. For 50 years, he covered the Masters, served as a Heisman Trophy elector and wrote about Rowan County sports.

“He is the reason the Post has been known for its local sports coverage for more than half a century,” said Ed Dupree, who followed Billings as sports editor.

Billy Burke was Salisbury’s “Piano Man.” He proved over his 95 years to be a life master at bridge, songs and making friends.

Burke died Feb. 6. He was always the musical fixture in Salisbury, playing the piano at Rotary, church, the Holiday Inn, community fundraisers, concerts, weddings, reunions and parties.

But his musical talents went far beyond local events to include stints in dance bands and as accompanist for singers on television and radio.

He composed the songs for “Huck Finn,” a musical comedy presented by Catawba College’s Blue Masque in 1955, 1958 and, to Burke’s delight, in 2012.

In 1957, the N.C. Symphony performed an orchestrated medley of five of Burke’s songs, and the Salisbury Symphony played his “Huck Finn” tunes on several other occasions.

After an almost three-year battle with lymphoma, Travis Casper died March 26 at the age of 27.

For six years before his illness was diagnosed, Casper had attended night classes at Catawba College, trying to earn his four-year degree so he could enter the Air Force as an officer and pursue his dream of flying jets.

Casper carried a 3.8 grade-point average and lacked only two classes toward earning his degree. Days before he died, he learned the college was going to waive his need to take the remaining hours and allow him to graduate May 11.

His brother, Brandon Casper, accepted the diploma on what would have been Travis’ 28th birthday.

Jim DeHart guided Rowan County’s American Legion baseball program for 11 seasons, which included a state championship in 1993 and a regional championship in 1996.

His Legion squads averaged 33.5 victories a season while he compiled a record of 368-120-1.

DeHart also served as Catawba College’s head baseball coach, putting up a 77-54 record in four years, including a league title in 1988.

DeHart died June 23 at age 76.

Though he was a pioneer as an ALS patient for the Diaphragm Pacing System, Mike Earnhardt was quick to tell you, “I’m just the same old Mike I’ve always been.”

Earnhardt was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2010. He died May 18 at age 61.

In December 2012, Earnhardt became only the second ALS patient in North Carolina to receive the Diaphragm Pacing System to assist with his breathing.

Earnhardt was best known as a barber for 40 years at the Southgate shopping center.

Not long before she passed out at the Chick-fil-A playground and her little heart stopped beating, Lillie Edwards said several times she was having the best day of her life.

It was a line Salisburians could not get out of their heads in the days after her Jan. 5 death. Close to 1,000 people attended the 6-year-old girl’s funeral at Sacred Heart Catholic Church because they knew her back story: Lillie had been born with congenital heart disease and in her short life had faced three open-heart surgeries.

But it never stopped her from smiling, dancing and loving the people and animals around her.

Often billed as “The Fabulous One,” Jackie Fargo and his cocky strut paved the way for professional wrestlers to come such as Ric Flair.

Fargo, 82, died June 24 in southern Rowan County just two days shy of his birthday.

At one time, Fargo was the biggest wrestling star in Memphis and other Tennessee television markets. He and his brother, Sonny “Roughhouse” Fargo, created one of the original bleach-blond tag teams and were the first tag team to draw 20,000-plus fans to New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Ronnie Gallagher, sports editor of the Salisbury Post since June 1997, died unexpectedly Aug. 30. He was 57.

As a sports editor and writer, the award-winning Gallagher often treated normal high school sporting contests as though they were Super Bowls, because he knew that’s how the games were viewed by the players, fans and parents.

Post Editor Elizabeth Cook said Gallagher’s sports pages were a reflection of his personality — “clever headlines, splashy photos and the most thorough coverage of high school sports that you can find in the state.”

Al Gentry, 68, of Rockwell, died July 15. For almost three decades, he dedicated himself to bringing his brother’s killers to justice.

Harold Gentry’s bullet-riddled body was found in his Norwood home in July 1986. Al Gentry’s dogged pursuit eventually led Stanly County investigators to Harold’s wife, Betty Neumar, and she was charged in 2008 with three counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder in her husband’s death.

It turned out all five of Neumar’s husbands — Harold Gentry was her fourth — died under suspicious circumstances.

Neumar died of cancer in June 2011 before ever going to trial.

“You had to admire him for actively trying to solve this case,” Stanly Sheriff Rick Burris said. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease — and he was very persistent.”

Whether on stage, at church or in a circle with other musicians, Paul Hill always seemed ready to play his Martin guitar.

Hill, a state and national award winner for his guitar playing, specialized in country, gospel and bluegrass tunes. He died April 8 at age 82.

“His music, in my humble opinion, came from his heart,” longtime friend and fellow picker Clay Lunsford of Union Grove said.

Dr. Walter Hood, an artist who taught from 1971 to 1990 at Catawba College, was a gentle, quiet and gracious man with a notably wry sense of humor.

He died Aug. 6 at age 84. Colleagues remembered Hood as deeply religious and ultra conservative in his work. He especially loved word play and painted the six-panel mural at the Salisbury Mall.

Salisbury Police Sgt. Mark “Big Train” Hunter, 51, died April 18 of an apparent heart attack, stunning his department.

An Army veteran, Hunter had been on the force 20 years. “He did his job,” store owner John McLaughlin said. “He really respected his job. He improved this community so much here.”

Hunter had his critics, too, and the city agreed to cash settlements with some citizens who lodged complaints against the officer.

Everybody under the sun seemed to come out for Blanche Lentz’s 105 birthday party in July.

Her secrets to a long life: livermush and heaping spoonfuls of Coffee-mate.

Lentz died Sept. 30.

Arnold D. Loflin joined with his son, Dave, to build one of downtown Salisbury’s strongest anchors, the Thread Shed.

The Loflins opened Thread Shed in 1975, and Arnold, who was 83 when he died Jan. 29, worked in the store for exactly 37 years until his health gave way.

Loflin was tireless and believed in a simple mantra: “You get the job done by working.”

Scott Mitchell, once dubbed by the Salisbury Post as “Father Tennis,” died June 12 at the age of 92.

Mitchell played tennis into his 90s and was a fixture at City Park and Catawba College tennis courts. After retiring from General Electric in 1983, he coached tennis at Catawba College for many years.

Though life gave her formidable obstacles, Jettie Patton was the proverbial never-met-a-stranger type of person.

Davie Countians came to know Jettie first in 1990, when as a 5-year-old, she needed a liver transplant.

But Jettie died May 4 after a five-year fight against brain cancer. A tumor had been found on her brain stem in 2008. Throughout her ordeal, Jettie followed her passions: animals, makeup and shopping.

Bruce Rogers, 105, died July 26. He was amazing for his vitality. Rogers played and walked the McCanless Golf Course into his late 90s, drove his car well past his 100th birthday and carried vivid memories of being the circulation manager of both the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte News until his retirement in 1971.

Charles Rufty, 85, was the youngest of 12 hardworking Rufty children and founder of Southeastern Plumbing Supply.

He especially loved Western movies. Rufty died Dec. 7.

A carriage hearse, drawn by a white horse, took Rufty to his final resting place at City Memorial Park.

“The good guys always had white horses,” daughter Tzena Wicker explained.

Dr. R. Gordon Senter, 73, died Nov. 26 from injuries he sustained when he fell 20 feet from a ladder at his Shortsail Road home eight days earlier.

After relocating to Salisbury from Charlotte, Senter practiced 20 years here in rheumatology, and he was beloved by his patients and staff.

Leo Showfety, 90, one of the men who gathered in Salisbury for the 66th reunion of the 737th Tank Battalion of World War II, died in his Salisbury hotel room the morning he was supposed to return to his Greensboro home.

He was among seven men from the battalion who had been featured in the Salisbury Post June 23, the same morning of his death.

A retired Kannapolis dentist, Dr. Freeman Slaughter had served as the city’s first mayor pro tem and worked diligently toward the city’s incorporation. He died Dec. 23.

Miles Smith Jr., onetime head of Carolina Rubber Hose, also co-chaired former Gov. Jim Hunt’s first campaign in 1972.

Smith died Nov. 4 at age 86.

Railroad man C.E. “Pappy” Spear also was known as Spencer’s elder statesman. He served Spencer town government as either mayor or alderman for 38 years.

Spear died Sept. 26 at the age of 89.

Stories of Helen Rae and Hoyle “Shotgun” Talbert flooded back to their friends and family in eastern Rowan County after the couple died from injuries they sustained in an Oct. 16 traffic accident.

The Talberts were like eastern Rowan royalty because of all the people they affected through kindness and generosity.

“No matter what the generation, it’s touching everybody — that’s the long and short of it,” said Terry Beaver, a lifelong friend of the couple.

Helen was 80; Shotgun, 84.

The Salisbury Civitan Club gave its annual “Hero Award” to the family of Steven Tanksley, the 45-year-old Salisbury man who drowned in a swollen South Yadkin River near the “Bullhole” July 6.

Tanksley, fishing on shore with his three sons, had jumped into the river to rescue a man and his dog who had fallen from the dam.

Tom Webb, a Rowan County commissioner from 1990 to 1996, died Jan. 12 at the age of 62. In public office, Webb was known for his affable personality — someone who could disagree without being disagreeable.

Webb ran into trouble with the law, however, as a Granite Quarry gun shop owner. He faced numerous indictments on gun law violations, resigned as commissioner and pleaded guilty in 1997 to five felony counts and five misdemeanor counts.

He was imprisoned and released in 1999. Webb moved from Rowan to Davie County, went to work and retired from Schaefer Interstate Railing while also becoming a member of Cooleemee’s planning board.

Marcelle Williams, who died May 30 at age 92, served 20 years on the Rowan County Board of Education, chairing the board when it merged with Salisbury City Schools in the late 1980s.

“You’ll never find anybody that was more dedicated to the youth of this county than Marcelle,” fellow board member Carl Eagle said.

Williams, a strong community force in the town of Faith, also was dedicated to helping veterans. He served as state commander for the N.C. American Legion in 1968.

Cheryl Wyrick died March 12 at the age of 28. The mother of two’s last wish to go to Disney World with her family came true with the community’s help.

Friends raised more than $20,000 for the trip, funeral expenses and trust funds for her children, 2 and 6.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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