The oldest living team captain from Tar Heel football died Saturday in Winston-Salem. Ralph Strayhorn Jr. was 93 years old.
Strayhorn was co-captain with Chan Highsmith of the 1946 team that went 8-2-1 and won the Southern Conference championship. He graduated from Carolina in 1947 with a degree in commerce and three years later added a law degree. He was a senior partner in the firm of Newsom, Graham, Strayhorn, Hedrick, Murray, Bryson and Kennon until 1978, when he assumed the executive position of general counsel of the Wachovia Corporation and the Wachovia Bank and Trust Company until his retirement in 1988. At that time, he joined the law firm Petree Stockton & Robinson, as "of counsel," a position he served in for several years.
Throughout his professional career, Strayhorn remained active in the life of his alma mater, its athletic program and, particularly, its beloved football program.
“You never had trouble getting those 1940s era guys to have a reunion,” said Ralph Strayhorn III, who has many fond memories as a boy getting to meet his father’s old teammates and delighted in having breakfast with Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice at the Carolina Inn on football Saturdays. “There was a lot of affection and mutual respect in that group. They loved each other’s company. It was ‘The Greatest Generation’ in a football context.”
Ralph Jr. was an important cog at the front end of the 1940s World War II decade. A native of Durham, Strayhorn was recruited by assistant coach Jim Tatum and played ball at Carolina in 1941-43, left for the Navy in 1944-45 and returned for a final year in 1946. That team catapulted the Tar Heel program and its “Choo Choo” locomotive into the nation’s football elite.
“There was excitement on the campus,” noted Hark The Sound, a commemorative book published on the fiftieth anniversary of 1946 Tar Heel team. “America had entered the year contented, at peace and optimistic about the future. Servicemen were returning and coach Carl Snavely was enjoying an unprecedented prosperity of talented players. It was a perfect fit for a country and for a university in a general mood of well-being. The time was right to enjoy sports again.”
And enjoy sports they did, particularly the game of football.
“It was a delightful time to be in Chapel Hill,” Strayhorn said in a 2010 interview. “Everyone was glad to be home from the war, back in school where they belonged.”
A prized illustration hung in the Hall of Honor of the Kenan Football Center and also in Strayhorn’s home—the pen and ink drawing by Harold Styers of the coin toss before the 1947 Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. Missing from the setting was Chan Highsmith, a co-captain with Strayhorn in ’46 who was sidelined for the big game after an injury that had a double-barreled wallop on Strayhorn’s life.
Ralph Strayhorn Sr. operated the Western Union telegraph office in Durham and urged young Ralph, a standout lineman for coach Terry Brubaker’s state title team at Durham High, to attend Carolina after Tatum worked his recruiting magic. Strayhorn Sr. tapped out play-by-play in Morse code during games in Kenan Stadium, but he suffered a heart attack during the season-ending game at Virginia in ’46. Highsmith made a tackle on a kick-off but broke his back in the process, and as he lay motionless on the field and was carried off in an ambulance, the elder Strayhorn thought it was his son who had been injured—thus the shock that put him the hospital.
Highsmith traveled to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl wearing a full-body cast, but Mr. Strayhorn never regained consciousness and died one week after the game, a 20-10 Georgia victory.
“My mind wasn’t focused on the game, needless to say,” Strayhorn II said. “I thought about not going. My first cousin was a doctor and was very close to our family. He said my father would want me to go and play in that game. So I stayed behind when the team left and then caught the last train to New Orleans—it was filled with Carolina fans and they partied the whole way down there.
“I was on the first train back out of town. I returned to my father’s bedside but he never recovered.”
Strayhorn actually had another year of eligibility remaining and considered playing football in 1947 while starting graduate studies in the UNC Law School.
“The ’43 season didn’t count against your eligibility because so many had gone off to war,” Strayhorn says. “I gave a lot of thought to what to do in ’47. The dean of the law school told me that if I was considering entering law school and playing another year of football, I might want to put off law school. That was good advice. It was pretty rugged that first year. That’s the year you figure out if you can make it or not.”
As Strayhorn entered a successful law career that began in private practice and led to a post as chief legal counsel and vice chairman for Wachovia Corp., he kept close tabs on the Tar Heel football program. He remained good friends with Tatum, who went on to win a national title at Maryland, and wrote Tatum a four-page letter in November 1955 asking that he please return home to Chapel Hill to take over a moribund program.
“The football situation at Chapel Hill seems to have reached an all-time low,” Strayhorn wrote. “… I have talked to a number of alumni and have in some ways been attempting to strengthen the movement that is already under way to try to get you back to Chapel Hill.”
Tatum did leave Maryland for Carolina several months later and was three years into his rebuilding program in July 1959 when he was stricken with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and shocked the college football world by dying at the age of 46. Two years earlier, Strayhorn had prepared Tatum’s will, and the document was ready to be signed the week Carolina was to travel to Maryland—Tatum’s first return to College Park and a game buzzed by the scheduled attendance of Queen Elizabeth. Strayhorn delivered the will to Tatum’s office and, as the coach was signing the document, he asked if Strayhorn was going to the game.
“I told him I didn’t have tickets, transportation, a room or a baby-sitter,” Strayhorn says. “He said, ‘Well, find yourself a baby-sitter. I’ll take care of the rest. You be at the airport Friday at 2 o’clock.’ We got to the airport and everything was arranged for us.”
Both of Strayhorn’s children, Ralph III and Carol, are Carolina graduates, and Ralph Jr. at various times served as chairman of the UNC Board of Trustees, president of Alumni Association and general counsel for the Rams Club. He was chairman of the search committee charged in 1987 with finding a replacement for Dick Crum. The committee’s choice was a young coach from Tulane; Mack Brown started his Tar Heel tenure with back-to-back 1-10 seasons before building a program that notched consecutive Top 10 finishes less than a decade later.
“I never had any doubt Mack would win here,” Strayhorn said. “He had personality that just oozed out. He made an indelible impression when he first met you. But I’ll tell you this: I took all kinds of heat those first two years. People said, ‘That football coach of your’s isn’t doing very well.’ He was mine when he was losing. When he started winning, he was our’s.”
Ironically, Brown was attending a weekend gathering in Southern Pines of the UNC football coaching staff and friends of the program that Ralph III had planned to attend but was unable to because of his father’s health and eventual passing on Saturday morning.
“Ralph became a dear friend and loved UNC football as much as anyone I’ve ever known,” Brown says.
A graveside service and internment will be held on Tuesday, June 7 at 11 a.m. at the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery on Raleigh Road in Chapel Hill. Following internment, a brief reception will be held at the Carolina Inn. A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, June 7 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Hospice of Winston-Salem, 101 Hospice Lane, Winston-Salem, NC 27103; the Educational Foundation at UNC-Chapel Hill, 450 Skipper Bowles Dr., Chapel Hill, NC 27599 or St Paul's Episcopal Church, 520 Summit St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101.Online condolences may be sent to www.salemfh.com.