Chilly Willy, a well-known formerly homeless man in Charlotte, was struck by a car and killed Thursday night on East Seventh Street.
The much-beloved but troubled 58-year-old, whose real name was William Major, was a fixture for years on Charlotte streets where he panhandled and sang. Police and social workers knew him by name, and his struggles with alcoholism and homelessness were widely known.
But in the final months of his life, Major whod been homeless for more than 20 years found a home. Hed moved into Moore Place, a Charlotte apartment building for the chronically homeless run by the Urban Ministry Center.
The day he moved in eight months ago, he announced that his name was William Larry Major, said Caroline Chambre, director of Moore Place.
He said, I am not Chilly Willy anymore.
The fatal collision happened just after 9 p.m. Thursday in Charlottes Elizabeth neighborhood in front of Jackalope Jacks, where several other pedestrians have been hit in recent years, including one who died.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said Major stepped onto Seventh Street and was struck by a 65-year-old woman driving a Hyundai Sonata. Paramedics rushed Major to the hospital, but he was pronounced dead around 9:30 p.m.
Joe Hinson said he was sitting on the patio at Jackalope Jacks with his back to the road when he heard the crash behind him. When he turned around, he saw Major lying on the ground.
Hinson said Major had walked up and down the sidewalk on Seventh Street earlier in the evening. A manager at the bar had told Major to be careful, Hinson said.
Police closed a section of the road as they investigated the wreck. The car that struck Major had a dent in the hood, and the passenger side of the windshield was shattered. After hearing that the victim was Chilly Willy, several bystanders stopped to ask officers how he was doing.
The driver, who stopped at the scene and called 911, is not facing charges, police said late Thursday.
The investigation is ongoing. Anyone with information about the case is asked to call police at 704-432-2169.
The area where Major was killed, near several bars and restaurants, has been the site of other serious crashes involving pedestrians.
Last October, Autumn Lynn Soyka, 31, was struck and killed by a drunk driver in front of Jackalope Jacks. In August 2010, another driver was charged with DWI after hitting and injuring three pedestrians on the same street, also near the bar.
Major, easily recognizable by his wild hair, was known as one of the citys most colorful characters. As news of his death spread Thursday night, people flocked to Twitter and Facebook, writing that theyll miss Chilly Willy, who many described as the coolest guy in Charlotte.
Major, who grew up in Charlotte, spent much of his life in trouble with the law, with a criminal record that dated back to the 1970s. Records show he served time in prison for armed robbery and other offenses, including trying to escape from prison.
In recent years, Major found himself in jail time and time again, but mostly for nonviolent crimes. His most recent arrest was in August, when he was charged with being intoxicated and disruptive.
In 2007 when a local study identified Major as one of 81 chronic offenders who clogged Mecklenburg County jails social workers estimated that he had been homeless for about 20 years.
In an interview with the Observer that year, Major said he slept behind a liquor store or snuck into the back of cars or a hospital waiting room. When asked why he wouldnt stop drinking, he said, I wish I could tell you.
His brother, who occasionally brought him food and money, told the Observer in 2007 that Major began living on the streets when he couldnt find work after being released from prison. John Major said his brother would walk out of rehab.
But local groups that work with the homeless were determined to help Major find a place to live. Five years ago, an administrator for Mecklenburg County Homeless Support Services said Major had a tender side and could be charming and insightful.
Chambre said Major had continued to struggle with alcohol but had made progress since moving into Moore Place, where social workers help people transition from a life of homelessness. She said Major frequently talked about wanting to better himself.
Chambre initially worried that the program would have to constantly replace his apartment key.
He never once lost his key, she said. That key was like gold to him.
She saw a lot of wisdom in Major, she said, and when he was sober, he was one of the wisest people she knew.
He could be cantankerous and cranky, but he had a heart of gold, she said.
Major often interacted with late-night revelers around uptown, and there are several videos of him on YouTube. In one video posted in 2008 which had nearly 25,000 views at the time of his death Major strummed a guitar and then looked at the person holding the camera.
My name is William Larry Major, and they call me Chilly Willy, he said. And Im fixin to cut loose on you a song.
Then, in his gravelly voice, he belted out a Charlie Daniels Band tune.
If you dont like the way Im livin, you just leave this long-haired country boy alone, he sang.