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Charlotte Area

Remembering William Larry Major, AKA 'Chilly Willy'

On a busy stretch of 7th Street in the Elizabeth neighborhood Thursday night, William Larry Major stepped into the road, was struck by a car and died.

Almost instantly, Charlotte Facebook and Twitter accounts were awash in messages honoring the man known to many as "Chilly Willy."

A quick search on YouTube yields a taste of the fondness Chilly Willy inspired in people: wild-haired and tattooed, breaking into song, as he engaged people on street corners.

"These walls and bars are surrounding me! Chilly Willy wants to be free!," he sings in one clip.

"He was just a character of the - actually of the whole city," says Jon Frye. "He was all over the place."

Including the corner of Central and Pecan, where Frye works as a sous chef for Soul Gastrolounge. Depending on how drunk Chilly Willy was, he'd be there cursing at people or giving high fives - often making a spectacle.

"The kids would give him money for beer and then they would jump over him with their skateboards," says Greg Anderson, who also works at Soul Gastrolounge. "As long as he got his beer money, he was happy. That's my favorite memory."

"He really hated to be an alcoholic," says Kathy Vestal. She's homeless - like Chilly Willy was for the majority of the last 30 years. "He turned into a rattlesnake (when he drank), you know he was real angry. But as a person he was so generous and kind and kind-hearted and loving."

On Friday afternoon, Vestal sat grim-faced next to a memorial of flowers at the curb where Chilly Willy was struck by a car. 

"We'll miss you Chilly Willy" reads a fluorescent green sign, echoing the scores of messages left online. "Charlotte's coolest homeless guy," says one post.

What few people know is that Chilly Willy was no longer homeless - and he no longer wanted that nickname.  In February, he was among the first chronically homeless people to move in to an apartment complex run by the Urban Ministry Center called Moore Place.

"The day that Larry moved in to Moore Place, he said, 'I'm not Chilly Willy anymore. My name is William Larry Major and he was very insistent,'" says Caroline Chambre, the director of Moore Place.  "You could see his desire to do better, to make changes."

Major's caseworker at Moore Place - Robert Nesbit - says an incarceration decades ago left Major struggling to find work and contributed to his homelessness.

With housing, Nesbit says Major was drinking less and tangling with the law less, too.

"You can look back in the last year and see he has had fewer jail visits than any time in the last 30 years if I had to make a guess," says Nesbit.

A lapse in August led to Major's first intoxication arrest in nearly a year. But even in that, Nesbit says Major was a changed man.

"He went independently to make this court date and take responsibility," says Nesbit. "He not only appeared in court, but he was appropriate - was sober - and came back to Moore Place and then returned an extra bus ticket he had."

Major was intensely proud of his tiny studio apartment, adds Chambre. He'd often walk the halls at Moore Place jangling his keys and was the self-appointed welcome committee for visiting tour groups.

But he also loved spending time on the street.

"You know he was gonna always be that gregarious person and he got energy from talking to people and socializing with people," says Chambre.  "So on some odd level, it almost seems sort of fitting that that's where he died. But he died with a home and with people at his home that cared about him and loved him deeply."

William Larry Major was 58 years old.