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At 97 years old, UNC's oldest-living b-baller says Silent Sam should go

The old man who is the oldest UNC-Chapel Hill basketball and baseball player alive let go of his walker and took a seat in front of Silent Sam on Sunday.

The cool afternoon air bothered the 97-year-old, a little.

But he made the trek to support the UNC Walk for Health message that the bullet that killed Martin Luther King Jr. came from the symbolic rifle held by the UNC-campus monument to the Confederate States of America — one, Silent Sam. And he wanted to tell people about it.

Besides being the oldest UNC athlete walking the earth, Bobby Gersten is the co-founder of the Walk for Health along with its director, William Thorpe. Sunday's event followed a program celebrating the life of the slain civil rights leader earlier in the week.

Thorpe took a folding chair next to Gersten. The men held red, white and blue American flags and Carolina blue flags of their university.

"I thought it was just a beautiful thing (when I was in school); I didn't know there was a controversy," says Bobby Gersten, 97, in front of Silent Sam on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus Sunday, April 8, 2018. Today UNC's oldest living former basketball and baseball player says the Confederate monument should probably come down. "Too bad because it's a beautiful thing, but it really has no place." MARK SCHULTZ

Passersby watched as they walked across the McCorkle Place quad, some briefly stopping to listen.

Thorpe and Gersten proclaimed a mutual want to promote one of UNC's core missions: to “improve the quality of life for people in this society and solve the biggest problems on the planet.”

Gersten took a long look around the quad.

"I used to sit here with a girl," he said.

One of a couple of reporters called out, "What'd she look like?"

"She looked like me," the nonagenerian said. "Beautiful."

Gersten wore a Carolina blue windbreaker over a matching UNC Walk for Health T-shirt, khakis and white socks that slipped down into a pair of Air Jordan sneakers.

He graduated a Tar Heel in 1942, and he received the school's Patterson Award for athletic leadership that same year.

After college, he served in the Air Force during World War II. “I played basketball and baseball for the Air Force the whole time,” he said. “That's how I helped win that war.”

Gersten directed the Brant Lake Camp in the Adirondacks, and in the 1950s, was the founding dean of students and a professor of physical education and human sexuality at Nassau Community College in his home state of New York.

Looking over those gathered to hear him and Thorpe speak, Gersten said: “Where are all the girls at? The last time I was out here, there were nothing but girls. Now … I haven't ever seen so many boys in one spot.”

Gersten's wife of 71 years, Libbie Gersten, died in 2015. Born in Ashville, Libby met Bobby Gersten on the UNC campus.

'A beautiful thing'

When Gersten enrolled at UNC in 1938, he said, there was no controversy surrounding Silent Sam. “I just thought it was a beautiful thing; I didn't know there was any controversy,” he said.

Gersten grew up on Long Island in New York, and when he headed south for school, did not notice any overt race-related tension.

“There was [tension] in the background,” he said. “Nothing came out. Nothing openly. But certainly the blacks didn't have any important place here at all.”

About Silent Sam, Gersten said, it should come down.

“It doesn't really have any place," he said. "I think it should come down. I really do. Too bad, because it's a beautiful thing. I love it. But it really has no place.”

The statue doesn't symbolize anything that's valuable, he said.

“Where are you from?” Gersten asked a young man beside the statue.

“Mebane? I dated a girl from Mebane,” Gersten said. “About six of 'em.”

Any girls from Durham?

“Durham? Yeah. About, 30 of them,” the old man said.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks