People across Charlotte are remembering the formerly homeless, wild-haired man known as Chilly Willy, who died Thursday night after being hit by a car on East Seventh Street, a perilous spot for pedestrians in recent years.
The 58-year-old, whose real name was William Larry Major, had panhandled on Charlottes streets for more than 20 years. Police and social workers knew him by name, and his struggles with alcoholism and homelessness were widely known.
Larry was just an individual who wanted to do what he wanted to do, said his sister Joan Armstrong of Fort Mill, S.C., explaining that her brother had refused to move in with family over the years. That was the life he chose to live.
But in the final months of his life, Major found a home. Hed moved into Moore Place, a Charlotte apartment building for the chronically homeless run by the Urban Ministry Center.
He could be cantankerous and cranky, but he had a heart of gold, said Caroline Chambre, director of Moore Place.
Major was hit just after 9 p.m. in front of Jackalope Jacks in the Elizabeth neighborhood. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said he stepped onto East Seventh Street and was struck by a 65-year-old woman driving a Hyundai Sonata headed away from uptown. Paramedics rushed Major to the hospital, but he was pronounced dead around 9:30 p.m.
Joe Hinson, who was sitting on the patio at Jackalope Jacks with his back to the road, said he heard the crash behind him and turned around to see 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.
After hearing that the victim was Chilly Willy, several bystanders stopped to ask officers how he was doing.
Police said the driver, who stopped at the scene and called 911, is not facing charges, but the investigation is ongoing.
Another pedestrian death
The crash came just 12 days before the one-year anniversary of another pedestrians killing in the same area.
Autumn Lynn Soyka, 31, was struck and killed there last Oct. 30 by an alleged drunk driver in front of Jackalope Jacks. A year earlier, another driver was charged with DWI after hitting and injuring three pedestrians in the same vicinity.
Flowers placed alongside the road in Soykas memory remained there Thursday night, as police closed part of the road to investigate the crash that killed Major.
The Charlotte Department of Transportation will also investigate the incident. Crash data showing the number of crashes involving pedestrians on Seventh Street wasnt immediately available.
The street in that area has three lanes, with several restaurants nearby. At night, some patrons park in a small strip malls parking lot and walk across Seventh Street, heading to Jackalope Jacks or Philosophers Stone Tavern on Seventh Street, and Kennedys bar and grill around the corner on North Caswell Road.
There is no crosswalk in front of Jackalope Jacks, but there is one about 200 feet away at the intersection of Seventh Street and Caswell Road.
Linda Durrett, a spokeswoman for CDOT, said the department recently installed a pedestrian signal and pedestrian markings at that intersection.
Some have said the area needs better lighting. Josh Settle, owner of Philosophers Stone Tavern, said hed like to see a crosswalk in front of the restaurants, although a crosswalk may not have prevented Majors death.
Settle said hed known Major for about 12 years, and the pair had a love-hate relationship.
Major tested Settles patience at times, hassling customers at the bar or cursing at people on the street, Settle said. But often, Major was friendly, and Settle gave him food and let him pick out clothes from the bars lost and found collection at the end of the year.
I was either running him off or shaking his hand, Settle said, smiling. You never knew what you were gonna get. But hell be missed.
To many, Major was a harmless fixture around the area, easily recognizable by his disheveled hair and a tattoo on his forehead. His death sparked a flood of posts on social media, with some describing him as the coolest guy in Charlotte.
Kennedys wrote on its Facebook page Friday that it was running its Chilly Willy burger on special in honor of Major.
Major 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, a local study examined 81 chronic offenders who clogged Mecklenburg County jails. Major was among them.
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.
Father was a minister
Major grew up in Charlotte as the middle child in a family with seven children. His father was a minister, and he was raised in the church, where he often played guitar, said Armstrong.
After he was released from prison, Major didnt want to feel closed in. She said thats why he stayed on the streets.
He touched a lot of hearts, she said. If his shirt was clean, hed take it and give to you.
She last saw him about a month ago in church. Hed started coming back to church recently, she said.
Larry knew the way He still had a good heart, Armstrong said. Larrys demon was the bottle.
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 homelessness. She said he frequently talked about wanting to better himself.
The day he moved in eight months ago, he announced that his name was William Larry Major, she said.
He said, I am not Chilly Willy anymore.
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.
Majors family plans to have a visitation from 6-7:30 p.m. Monday at the Church of Jesus Christ on East 36th Street. They asked that donations be made in his honor to the Urban Ministry Center. Donations can be mailed to 2435 Lucena St., Charlotte, NC, 28206.