By James Tatter
Speaking in the entrance room to the Carolina Basketball Museum, Bob Ward was often interrupted in the middle of one of his many iconic Chapel Hill stories.
Midway through a tale of his short stint in the early 1970s as a rural mail carrier for the Chapel Hill Post Office, he stopped. A woman had walked in to inquire about the museum, a shrine to the storied University of North Carolina basketball program.
Ward was on the job as a “nonessential, seasonal, temporary, part-time” greeter and museum attendant, as he refers to the role he has held at the museum since his retirement in 2008.
He looks the part. His neatly brushed gray hair and darker bushy eyebrows frame a well-worn smile. His blue sweater has a wide silver, black and white argyle pattern down the front. He wears black Asics sneakers and navy socks with Tar Heel logos on them. A gold wedding band sparkles on his left hand, perhaps outshone by the pale blue crystal from his UNC class ring on the right hand.
The woman wanted to know if there was a brochure to guide her through the museum.
“We’ve never really had a brochure,” Ward said. “We’re a living brochure.”
No kidding. Ward’s memories tell of a Chapel Hill that anybody who has been there would recognize.
The town has changed, but Ward has a tale for every age.
Whether it’s a basketball game, a celebrity visit or even the weather conditions, Ward remembers it. Chapel Hill has left a mark on Ward, and he has left his mark on nearly everybody who has crossed his path in the seven decades that he has known the college town as home.
‘In my blood’
Ward remembers two presidential visits to Chapel Hill, both of which he witnessed in Kenan Memorial Stadium.
The first was by John F. Kennedy, on one of those patently Chapel Hill fall days where the sky dons Carolina blue and the clouds never roll in. Something was wrong with the public address system — “You couldn’t half hear what he was saying,” Ward recalls.
He remembers the day JFK was assassinated, too, just over two years later. His fifth period English class was dismissed early, and the bus home from the old Chapel Hill High School building on Franklin Street was stone silent.
“Nobody said a word,” Ward said, his characteristic smile temporarily leaving his face.
He remembers Bill Clinton’s visit for UNC’s bicentennial celebration as well, but not for anything the president did.
“Charles Kuralt stole the show,” Ward remembered. That was the day that Kuralt, the famous CBS broadcaster and UNC alumnus, delivered his ode to Chapel Hill, perhaps best remembered for his question, “What is it that binds us to this place as to no other?”
Ward is bound to Chapel Hill by a relationship that started with his father, who attended UNC.
“It was, I guess, in my blood,” Ward said.
His dad instilled an early affinity for the school. Ward remembers games in Woolen Gymnasium, where the Tar Heels used to play their basketball games. The wooden bleachers were carted over from Kenan Memorial Stadium after football season, and Ward was terrified of the large gaps in the slats — large enough for a kid to slip through, he was certain.
He remembers the 1957 season. After winning a triple-overtime game against Michigan State in which the lead changed hands 31 times, UNC advanced to the NCAA title game the next day against Kansas.
Ward and his father already had plans to go to visit his mother’s family in Florence, South Carolina, the next day. The tournament games were televised that year, but not as far away as South Carolina.
So after driving to Florence in the morning, he and his father hopped in the car that night and drove north to Fayetteville, North Carolina.
There they gathered in the living room of his aunt and uncle’s house along with a few neighbors to watch on a small black-and-white TV as UNC went to triple overtime for the second night in a row. After the Tar Heels sunk Kansas to capture their first NCAA title, Ward spent the night at the house before riding back to Florence in the morning and then back to Chapel Hill later that afternoon.
A man worthy of a statue
Ward graduated from UNC in 1970. He worked in banking for years, but never stopped being involved with UNC, particularly its basketball program. He has ushered at home games for the Tar Heels for 35 years.
He started at what was then called Carmichael Auditorium, moving over with the Tar Heels to the Dean E. Smith Center when it opened in 1986.
One of Ward’s close friends, Freddie Kiger, is a courtside statistician for college basketball broadcasts on ESPN, Raycom, Fox Sports South and CBS. Kiger labels Ward as a local legend.
“Bob Ward has been here forever,” Kiger said. “They should have a statue of him somewhere.”
Ward brought another Tar Heel fan into the fold when he married his wife, Ann, who he met in 1973.
“When he planned our wedding in the fall around football season, I kind of got an inkling for it,” Anne said.
He took her to her first UNC basketball game in 1973, a senior day matchup in Carmichael against Duke. The game would become one of the most iconic in the history of the UNC-Duke rivalry.
With 17 seconds left, the Tar Heels trailed by eight points. Before the advent of the 3-point shot, the Tar Heels scored four times to tie the game in regulation before winning it in overtime. Ann remembers thinking the bleachers were going to give out from the crowd jumping around.
“Those things were bouncing,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we are going to die right here.’”
The couple estimates that they go to 60-70 UNC sporting events per year, including the games Ward works with the basketball team.
At the Smith Center, he is a fixture, responsible for sections 127-130. His job has put him next to rapper J Cole and author John Grisham. Scott May, the father of legendary UNC player and current men’s basketball director of operations Sean May, used to stand next to Ward on the concourse to watch games away from the crush of the crowd.
His job has put him even closer to some of the players on the court. He took a knee to the chest from a diving James Michael McAdoo while working courtside, and had a near miss when Reggie Bullock jumped above him.
Ann often watches on TV from home, where she looks for the back of his head on close-up shots.
“If I’m ever near the TV, I’ll tap on his head,” she said. “He says he can’t feel it.”
A smaller world
The Wards have one daughter, Katie, who quickly got caught up in her father’s fandom.
When she was 3 years old, Ward would take Katie with him to watch UNC baseball games. Katie was like her father: She never met a stranger. She would walk around the stadium, talking to whoever she could.
Over the course of the season, she befriended a college girl named Lindsey Mathews, who would sit behind home plate. Mathews dated the team’s catcher.
The catcher, Todd Wilkinson, would let Katie run around the field after the games.
In 2017, more than 30 years after Mathews and Wilkinson graduated, a UNC graduate student walked into the Carolina Basketball Museum. She was filming something for a project.
As always, Ward struck up a conversation. Bizarrely, it came up that her father was Wilkinson. Ward shared with the girl the connection he had to her father and the girlfriend. The girl informed him that Lindsey had ended up marrying Todd after all.
“Is your daughter’s name Katie?” the girl asked.
It sure is, Ward informed her.
“I’m named after her,” the girl told him.
Ten years after leaving UNC, the Wilkinsons were still charmed by the lovely child who had kept Lindsey company. So much so that they named their daughter after her.
Katie Wilkinson connected Lindsey with Ward via phone, and they both started crying. The Wilkinsons and Wards reconnected when Barton College, where Todd is now the athletic director, came to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels at the Smith Center later in 2017.
The world seems to be a little smaller for Ward than it is for anyone else. He has a connection to and a story of just about everything to do with this town. Spend enough time in Chapel Hill and your thread has probably crossed over his at some point.
His stories could fill volumes of books. And it doesn’t take much to get him to tell them.
“All you have to do to get to know Bob Ward better is walk up and introduce yourself,” Kiger said. “And then let Bob Ward be Bob Ward.”
Story edited by Brennan Doherty