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Legendary characteristics times two

Not a single word was said, but yet a powerful message of love and respect was clear to see and understand.

As cars, trucks and golf carts – many displaying American Flags – slowly filed by the Millennium home of Johnnie Ray Farmer on Sunday afternoon to show their respect to the former Hertford County Commissioner and Vietnam veteran, I paused to reflect on what characteristics must a person have to make them a legend?

Roughly 70 miles to the southeast on Sunday, my mind drifted to another man who easily falls into the same category of a legend – former Chowan College men’s basketball coach Bob Burke.

It’s fairly certain that Johnnie Ray and Bob knew of each other, but yet the real irony comes in the fact that these two men, who each left a lasting mark on Hertford County and beyond, passed away on the same day.

Even though both men were highly respected in their chosen career fields, did they “check all the boxes” along the way and meet the requirements of becoming a legend?

From my personal perspective, the answer is a resounding yes to both men.

Johnnie Ray is a local native who defended American freedom during the Vietnam War….drafted right out of college and sent to a faraway land to battle an enemy who threatened Democracy. That was in 1968. Instead of pulling a “short hitch”, he made the military his life, retiring in 1992 with the rank of Sergeant Major in the U.S. Army.

But yet he continued to serve…first as a Junior ROTC at Hertford County High School for 13 years; then as a Hertford County Commissioner for 18 years. In-between he was extremely active in the local American Legion Post, helping military veterans find the resources they need to better their lives. As a hard-working member of local Legion Post 102, he was instrumental in getting Legion baseball rekindled locally for our young men.

As the first-ever Chairman of the Peanut Belt Rural Planning Organization, Johnnie Ray stood at the forefront of many of the highway improvement projects that we all benefit from today. His vision for the future was remarkable.

He also played a huge role in how the delivery of mental health services became better organized here in the Roanoke-Chowan area, and later throughout all of eastern ‘Carolina.

In all my years of following and writing about Johnnie Ray, I never heard anyone say anything negative about him. That alone qualifies him for legendary status.

Meanwhile, Bob Burke did the best thing a Yankee can do….move south, fall in love with a graceful Southern woman, raise a family, and the rest is history.

Playing college basketball in Texas and North Carolina, and then enjoying the majority of his basketball coaching success here in ‘Carolina, Bob did indeed play it smart.

Beginning in 1981, coach Burke built a basketball juggernaut in the tiny town of Murfreesboro….so much to the point where is was commonplace to look in the stands inside a packed Helms Center and see the likes of Jim Valvano, Dave Odom, Lefty Driesell, and Bobby Cremins. They were all there to recruit Bob’s talent….and there was enough of it to go around.

Those who witnessed first-hand the 400-plus wins; the conference and regional championship banners; the trips to the national finals all knew how it happened….pure coaching genius that became the heart, soul and mindset of those who proudly wore Chowan’s famed blue-and-white.

And along the way Coach Burke allowed this once young sports reporter unfettered access to himself and his players. And, believe it when I say that each one of those players loved coach Burke, despite his often gruff demeanor. Bob showed a “tough love” – one that prepared his players not just for that game’s opponent, but life’s challenges that were ahead.

Bob Burke had a gift of not only being a coaching genius, but shared his vast wisdom and sound advice to those outside the game of basketball. He had a knack of making people see and embrace their full potential.

That’s what legends are made of and that’s why men like Johnnie Ray Farmer and Bob Burke will long be remembered. Their physical presence is gone, but their legacy lives forever.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.