Looking For Ghosts

Horseteeth Ringen. The phrase sounds like a Russian greeting in translation or perhaps a salute before tossing down a shot of whiskey at an Irish racetrack. It isn’t either. It is a boy’s name.

When I was a kid in Northwest Indiana my father stopped the car across from a vacant lot near the Shell Station on the North side of town. “That,” he said, “use to be Brown’s Field where we played pickup baseball when I was growing up. Horseteeth Ringen hit a home run here one day, touched first, second and third, and then as he touched home plate, collapsed and died of a heart attack.”

I was mortified. A little bit because the thought of a twelve year old kid having a heart attack was frightening, but mostly because this poor kid, who could be me, had the nickname, “Horseteeth.” Even with the backlash against political correctness this couldn’t happen today.

But nicknames were still around in the 50s and 60s. There was kid who played basketball at my college that was called “The Kosiosko County Jumping Jack.” My two favorite nicknames are both from baseball, one for one of the greatest first basemen of all time, “Stan the Man Musial,” and the other a pun on Musial’s nickname given to a relief pitcher named Don Stanhouse whose combination of Harpo Marx hair and primal screams led an ESPN wag to give him the nickname, “Stan the Man Unusual.”

Today most nicknames are the first letters of a teammate’s first and second names; K.D., C.J., T.K., or hybrids of the first name with a couple of letters tacked on, Kimmer, Jimmer, and Emster. I wonder if in the South “Bigun” is still popular? Horseteeth, Badfeet, Enormous Head, Slowtwitch and Smelly would be snipped off in the first encounter with organized sport, which for most kids is about three.

Some of you may be wondering if the story about Horseteeth is true. It is, but because it took place in the 1930s you are going to have to take my word for it. If it happened after 1994 you could look it up. Horseteeth would likely be on Facebook or Myspace and possibly have an account with Friendster, Linkedin, Twitter or Classmates.com. If Horseteeth’s last name was Swenson you could possibly find him on Lunar Storm, a networking site in Sweden, and if he had a true disability, not just bad teeth, you might find him on disaboom, a network for people with MS, cerebral palsy and other health issues.

But of course Horsetooth died before any of this existed. Horsetooth died before television and Pez dispensers. If he collapsed after hitting a home run in 1994 you could google his name, search for him on pipl.com, and chances are you would find an archived news story about an unfortunate kid who collapsed in a field in Crown Point, Indiana with an undetected heart defect, while playing an unauthorized game of baseball next to a Pennsylvania Railroad roadbed where the tracks had been ripped up thirty years ago.

* * *

She would be fifty-six years old now; five foot ten inches tall, although if she were still wearing the Afro she had when I first met her, her personality, her presence and her hair would make her seem much taller. Her most distinguishing characteristic besides her skin color would be the fact that she is left-handed.

Carolyn Hawkins was from Henderson, North Carolina nineteen miles and 45 minutes North of Louisburg College one of the oldest two-year colleges in the United States. Louisburg College was chartered in 1787, held its first classes in 1805, and became Louisburg Female Academy in 1815. In the early part of the twentieth century it became affiliated with the Methodist Church and reorganized as a junior college.

Carolyn and I both arrived on the Louisburg campus in the Fall of 1974, she as one of the first female athletes to be recruited on an athletic scholarship, while I was hired to teach English and coach men’s golf and tennis. Neither of us was prepared to be a part of the first women’s volleyball team that Louisburg College fielded and both of us assumed our roles, mine as coach and Carolyn’s as player, by happenstance.

Carolyn was recruited to play on Louisburg’s first women’s basketball team by the head coach, Sam White, a confirmed bachelor who had spent most of his life coaching baseball at multiple levels in small towns throughout the South. I became the volleyball coach one week before practice began when the President of the college overheard a conversation at a dinner party that I had played for a men’s team in Chicago.

Both of us assumed our roles because we were asked. Carolyn was encouraged to tryout for the volleyball team by her high school basketball teammate, Debbie Tyson, who was also recruited to play basketball at Louisburg, and who would later go on to become the head volleyball coach at the University of Virginia. I said yes to the President when asked, although I thought he was talking about a men’s volleyball team. I was no more aware of the fact that Title IX legislation had been passed the year before providing opportunity for women in sports than I was that woods and ponds North of the College were home to copperheads, water moccasins, abandoned tobacco barns, and large mouth bass bigger than possums.

Carolyn had two nicknames: Hawk and Turkey. The first was an abbreviation of her last name but also conveyed the change in alertness that came over her in competition. The second was a high school nickname that I assumed referred to her ability to become the center of good-natured kidding about her tendency to be oblivious to whatever was happening whenever she was not in competition.

On a team of fifteen players, none of whom had ever played organized volleyball, her number was eighteen, which was only possible because we made our own uniforms from shirts and cloth bought in Raleigh. The numbers were sewn on by a lady who was friend of Dr. Ruth Cook, who served as Louisburg College’s first senior women’s administrator, and who watched women’s basketball and volleyball competition from a lawn chair perched on a stage in the gymnasium.

Because we ran a 4-2 with the setter positioned at the net in the middle of the court, Carolyn was both a left side and right side attacker, although using those terms would indicate more tactical preparedness than was actually the case. She was the first player in the history Louisburg volleyball to spike the ball, and by the end of her sophomore season was probably the second best attacker in a state that has as many Division I schools as any in the country.

Her development as an attacker allowed her to earn a full volleyball scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when she graduated from Louisburg with her junior college degree. She may have been the first black female athlete to play volleyball for North Carolina, which was located 55 miles and an hour and a half from Louisburg depending upon which two lane roads you took, and how many men with hats on were driving below the 50 mph speed limit.

She was not the first black athlete. Phil Ford was running the famed four corners offense for Dean Smith and Tarheel basketball. Local rival North Carolina State had recently won its first national championship with David Thompsen whose vertical jump challenged the laws of physics. Duke had not yet become Duke. The ACC was becoming the best men’s basketball conference in the country. Women’s volleyball, like women’s sport in general, was like a small amusement park ride on the edge of the state fair.

If Chapel Hill seemed like a charming, progressive college town that might appear on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post to most people, it must have been a culture shock to someone raised in Henderson, North Carolina via Louisburg College. Small towns in the Piedmont were in parallel universe waffling between 1775 and 1955.

Farmers still played marbles at near dusk in Rocky Mount. The owner of a small breakfast café that was my first restaurant meal in Louisburg talked about darkies while he was cooking sausage on the grill. Public sanitation did not include the black neighborhood on the other side of the river. White folks vacationed and golfed at Nags Head or drove South to Myrtle Beach. Black folks fished with worms in the Tar River.

1975 marked the second year for integration at the High School. Four drugstores were located at the same intersection on the square in a town of two thousand people. The movie theater had been closed for several years. Entertainment outside of high school sports was still segregated. People rooted for State or Carolina for different reasons. White people because they were alums, black people because of David Thompson, Charlie Scott and Phil Ford.

The campus that Carolyn Hawkins moved to was bivouacked in the twentieth century. Chapel Hill was actively recruiting black athletes to compete with North Carolina State; The Carolina Coffee shop on Franklin Street welcomed blacks as did the men’s store across the street which provided the men’s basketball staff and players with a as deep a discount as you can get on the dress suits players wore when they traveled. (On most college campuses in the 70s, discrimination was not primarily black and white, but football and men’s basketball on one plane and every other sport on another. To some degree this continues at many major institutions.)

1976 was Carolyn’s first year at North Carolina and my last year at Louisburg before moving to Nebraska. We competed against each other that Fall at Louisburg with Louisburg winning in straight sets, and Carolyn playing well for the Tar heels. After the match she was more “Turkey” then “Hawk” mingling with her former teammates, laughing while being both the center of attention and affection.

I could tell she missed the intimacy of Louisburg, but I was also reassured because her head coach at North Carolina, Beth Miller, was a very caring coach who would provide all the support Carolyn needed to succeed in an opportunity that none of us could have dreamed of two years before. Beth told me that while Carolyn faced the challenges that any student does from moving to a major university from a small liberal arts two year college, she was confident that Carolyn would ultimately succeed and graduate with a degree from one of the most prestigious schools in the country. And she did.

She played her senior year but then I lost track of her, partly because I was consumed with my own challenges at my new coaching position at Nebraska, partly because there was no internet, no cell phones, no texting, no twitter, no facebook. I would run into some of her former teammates who entered the coaching profession at clinics and conventions, and following hugs and embraces our first interaction almost always was, “Have you seen Carolyn? Do you know where she is?” And then we would retell stories about how we could get her to perform at a higher level in practice if we had someone come in and pretend to video tape her for the Raleigh evening news.

In the early 1980s one of my best friends, Terry Davis, a former basketball and volleyball coach at Louisburg High School told me he thought he saw her walking down the street in Greensboro, North Carolina but by the time he doubled back she was gone.

There were reports, with no attribution, that she had joined the military, and then for a year or two there was rumor that she had died, either in an accident or perhaps in military service. With the advent of the Internet, several of us have tried to find her. Her family is gone from Henderson. I phoned the administrative offices at Louisburg College and they do not have any records indicating that she ever attended the school. I was so dumfounded I couldn’t speak.

Beth Miller lost track of her as well. There are over forty Carolyn Hawkins listed in Linkedin living in North Carolina. There are hundreds on Facebook, none of the images have her countenance or smile. Of course she could be married with a different name. She could be living in Europe. Pipl.com does not list any death records that would correspond to her age, but she could be deceased.

I’ve explored the best people search engines: Google, 123 people, spock, and spokeo. There are pay sites that are probably more thorough but I have been hesitant to use those resources for a couple of reasons. After two years of searching for a former high school teammate, I finally found a phone number and address and there was a 99% chance that it was him. His relatives all matched. The age matched. Everything said it was him. But I hesitated. Why?

Something in me said that perhaps he didn’t want to be found. He hadn’t check in at his high school or college website. He hadn’t contacted any of our mutual friends. He or anyone from his family hadn’t been seen at class reunions in over thirty years. Two years before I called someone that I thought for sure was him based on a picture on facebook. Same bone structure. Same interests. Same age. The gentleman laughed, appreciated, and understood my passion to find my friend. But it wasn’t him. That is one reason. And the other reason . . . perhaps she is gone but as long as I don’t know for sure there is hope.

So why do I do this? Am I looking for someone from my past or am I looking for myself in my past. With a former player it’s different. Even when they are fifty-six it is like looking for a lost child. There is a sense that I should have made more of an effort. That I should have made sure that she was doing okay. I should have been there when she enlisted, got married or disappeared.

To some degree Carolyn Hawkins represents the first generation of young women who had the opportunity to compete. They played before there were accurate statistics or records. They played before there were media guides or youtube. For the most part, their pictures are not in trophy cases and they are either to busy to attend or not invited to reunions. They are becoming ghosts. But they still live in their coach’s mind. If I saw her today coming around the corner, if by chance I am lucky enough to find out that she is alive, healthy and doing well, this is what I would say:

Hawk, how are we doing?

Terry Pettit is the author of Talent and the Secret Life of Teams, available at www.terrypettit.com

6 Responses to “Looking For Ghosts”

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  1. Avatar for Kelly Daniels Kelly Daniels says:

    Mr. Pettit,
    When I was stationed at Camp Lejeune in the early 80s I found that the local residences seem to be habitual. In regard for locating Ms. Hawkins may I suggest these options? Contact her old local town newspaper. Those who get married in these local communities tend to put the engagement and or marriage in the hometown newspapers. I was shocked to find this out when I got engaged to my wife who’s from a Virginia community somewhat like Ms. Hawkins. Down in those small communities like Henderson, NC it’s county is the city. County records might be able to assist. Your article did not mention if you had tried to contact her old HS. I know I’m around the same age of Ms. Hawkins and the only person that is still around in my old HS counselor, who happens to be the principal now in her early 70s. ;-)

  2. Avatar for Tom DeBenedittis Tom DeBenedittis says:

    I remember watching Carolyn play volleyball for you. Smiling, she could jump out of the jim. I remember you beating me in a game of chess while i watched tv and read the tv-guinde. Ok ok so i was smug. Grins you were so happy. But i also remember getting my revenge on the tennis court one evening. Been a long time. Glad to see you and yours have done so well.

    • Avatar for Terry Pettit Terry Pettit says:

      Hello Tom,

      It is great to hear from you. I do remember the chess match, which may have been the last one I ever played. I hope all has gone well with you. I returned to Louisburg a few years back, most people were long gone but I did rendevous with former players, Debbie Tyson, Lynn Capps, Martha Mitchell and Barbara Burrell. It was a good time to be a Hurricane. Thanks for checking in.

      Best,

      Terry

  3. Avatar for London Hawkins London Hawkins says:

    Still wearing the afro! lol. But its salt and pepper now!

  4. Hello Coach Pettit,
    I don’t know if you remember me but I am Carolyn’s sister. I remember coming to her games and watching the awesome team you had. I have always been her number one fan! Those were the good old days. I often wonder how far she could have gone in a different time. Thank you for putting her life at Louisburg to words. Annette

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