Chilly Willy

I saw Larry Major a couple weeks ago. He was sober and pleasant. Not many people have seen him that way. Most of us here in Charlotte know him as Chilly Willy. He was our city’s most famous alcoholic.

He died Thursday night, hit by a car.

I first remember seeing him over on East Boulevard, harassing people on the patio at Brixx Pizza. For the last couple of years he liked to hang out on Central Avenue, not far from our house. He rarely asked for money. If he did, and you didn’t give it to him, he cussed at you. Most of the time he just cussed at you.

One afternoon, driving down Central, I swerved to avoid a garbage bag in the edge of my lane. As I got close I saw it wasn’t a garbage bag. It was Chilly, passed out in the gutter. I started to turn around, then saw a car pulling over to check on him. I drove on. I wish I’d gone back. But I didn’t.

He was famous enough locally that every once in a while somebody would put him on YouTube. If he was clearheaded enough, he could pick and sing a little. I’m not surprised he knew that Charlie Daniels song.

If you don’t like the way I’m livin’,
You just leave this long-haired country boy alone.

He had wild hair and mangled hands and the Harley wings tattooed on his forehead. Some people get silly drunk. Some people get mopey drunk. Chilly was angry drunk. He scared a lot of people. Other ones just laughed at him.

The Urban Ministry Center decided to help him.

I’ve been doing some work for Urban Ministry lately, talking to homeless people so I can tell some of their stories at True Blessings, Urban Ministry’s big fundraiser next month. At this point I’m going to quit calling him Chilly and start calling him Larry, because that’s what the folks at Urban Ministry called him. They saw Chilly Willy as a character. They tried to get to the real person.

They put Larry in an apartment at Moore Place, which was built to take homeless people off the streets and give them a place to live. That sounds expensive, and it is. But it doesn’t cost nearly as much as the drain on police, fire and medical resources when a homeless person goes to the ER, or to jail, again and again and again. You might have heard Malcolm Gladwell’s story about Million-Dollar Murray. Larry was Charlotte’s Million-Dollar Murray.

We had decided not to make Larry part of the True Blessings program because he liked the spotlight a little too much. Also, it was impossible to tell what mood he’d be in. One day, I was walking into Moore Place with Urban Ministry head Dale Mullennix as Larry was walking out. “Having a good day, Larry?” Dale said. “WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT?” Larry hollered as he walked by.

The people living at Moore Place can come and go as they please. They can drink, because drinking is legal. The idea is to bring people in, get them safe and settled, and then slowly set boundaries and deal with their issues. They have social events over there, sandwich-and-soda sorts of things, and they had told Larry he couldn’t come if he couldn’t behave. A staffer told me she saw him standing outside the glass doors one day, watching the party inside, not knowing if he’d be welcomed. Finally a couple of the other residents fixed him a plate and led him in.

The last time I saw him, a couple weeks ago, we were at Moore Place to talk to a few residents. Photographer Mark Edward Atkinson had a couple of people come out in the lobby, where the light was good. Larry wandered by and noticed this. He kept edging in closer. Mark asked if he would mind having his picture taken. He knew that’s what Larry wanted. So Larry leaned on a chair and started talking, clear-eyed and polite. He talked about photography, and music, and tattoos, and the streets, while Mark took pictures. He came over and shook my hand. He thanked all of us for spending time with him.

Charlotte knew Chilly Willy. I’m glad I got to meet Larry Major. I wish more people could have gotten to know him. I wish he could have been that person more.


42 thoughts on “Chilly Willy

  1. Pingback: Remembering Larry Major | Urban Ministry Center

  2. I once heard a rumor that Chilly Willy died in the cold during a Charlotte Winter.

    I saw him a week later and went to shake his hand and asked him about the rumor.

    He replied “Chilly Willy can’t freeze to death. He’s got too much Cisco in his body to keep it warm.”

    Those that don’t have a personality won’t get him.

    Those that can snap back with a quick joke at Chilly Willy loved his sense of humor.

    Chilly Willy was one of the oddest characters you’ll ever meet in your life. But if you got the chance to know him, you’ll never forget him because he could make you laugh, shake your head, or be angry within a matter of seconds of having a conversation with him.

  3. i had the chance to get to know Larry Major,aka “Chilly Willy”. I also experience the good, bad and indifferent. If he was having a bad day then yes he would begin to cuss, mostly because he did not what you to know his day was not good and that he was in so much pain. I remember telling . ” The way you feel shows on your face and not matter how your tried to hide it states your case.” I would always tell him ” I love you” and his reply would be “Why”. My response to this was; ” Because you are a child of God”. I would always get his attention. Sometimes he would smile.:) What I know is that behind every trouble soul, there will always be a testomony. His was that he knew GOD. He was upset with him about some heartbroken events, but he knew that he was in the care off. He could not get to the point of Letting GO and just Letting GOD. In his owne way he still believed. For those who remain among the living with those misery spirits and souls may you someday find peace before the life before may be the same as “Chilly Willy”. As for those who seen beyond his faults and was bless with his grace.; Let’s continue to give what he gave ” love for all of God’s people” and we will see him again.

  4. Why is everyone calling this menacing drunk “the coolest person in Charlotte” ? Every encounter I had with the guy was unpleasant.

    • @ LowCountyStar Look at the beginning of your name “Low” maybe that’s why your encounters was not pleasant. On Larry ‘s behalf I want to publicly appolize to you for not having what you apparently could not give to yourself and that is love , peace, and joy. Hopefully you will see that your remarks reflect who you are. Living below animal level is either by choice of by force. In “Larry’s case it was by choice. He was human and his life was his life. So don’t hate that we love, care and was inspired by his present. What have you done lately to have these many people speak kind words about you ??? Just as I thought “NOTHING”, Now with that go take a sit, you have my permission to take your next drink….. Thanks Tommy for helping us grieve the lost and process the feelings that we may have. I just hate that we are not all of the same page with this. R.I. P. “Chilly Willy” “Pretty Lady” will defend you to the end, just like William Major would have. 🙂

  5. Forget the haters Tommy. This was beautifully written and helped put a human face and emotions on a man who others might just see as a character, or not ever “see” at all. I wish to God he could’ve had more time in this new phase of his life. Instead of feeling sorry for him, or for for ourselves for not offering more when we could have, we all need to look inside of ourselves and ask “what have we learned from him? What does this teach us about ourselves?” Stop being so hard and judging others: writers or homeless people.

  6. hmmm… all this talk of love… if the world was so loving … if we were all so loving why did the man live the life he did and dont say well he chose and it was his own responsability… it’s a cold world and it’s easy to talk of love once you’re sure nothing will be asked of you. I admit I never did anything more for him than give him a couple of bucks for cisco but then I was homeless at the time myself..maybe his passing will motivate some to do more to help reintegrate these disenfranchised folks who have so far to go before they can even get to a point where they can look for work which is very hard to do if you’re dirty from the street with no address, no phone, and no transportation.

  7. Pingback: Remembering Chilly Willy | FavStocks

  8. Amazing how many have so much to say now that he’s gone. sad thing.. You mention you rode past him.. smiling and smh.. The world we live in. Write a story just for a few likes.. Chilly Willy made my day.. Regardless sober or drunk..

  9. Pingback: Larry Major, Your Life Mattered | Speak Up

  10. I used to see him on a fairly regular basis. I’d keep a pint of Wild Irish Rose in the glovebox for him. He’d smile like a Cheshire Cat when I’d give it to him.

  11. Sorry that a few people did not get the idea that Pat was channeling Chilly Willy. Funny, pathos, sadness, lots of mixed feelings. But I did laugh. Thanks Pat. And thanks to everyone here. You are the anti-Observer commenters.

  12. These are some words I shared on Facebook as I shared your story:
    Chilly Willy was the first homeless person my son ever knew. He came home from school today and let me know that Chilly had died. Trey got to know Chilly through Trinity Episcopal School’s service learning partnership with Urban Ministry. To Trey and many other students, he became their first face of homelessness. He spoke with Trey several times and was always very honest about his situation. He told Trey that alcohol was not good, never to give him money but food and to never ever think that the homeless didn’t have a story, didn’t care or were less than. Chilly showed up one spring morning to the baseball fields of Myers Park Trinity Little League. He sat in the stands, didn’t smell good and made several parents nervous. They went to get a police officer. Trey’s game ended, he walked over and told Chilly “thanks for coming to my game”. The police officer arrived, Trey stood there while he talked to Chilly and then told the officer that it was just Chilly, he wanted to watch baseball and that he would probably like a hotdog. Trey got him a hotdog, Chilly settled in and enjoyed a day of little league baseball.
    Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Romans 12:10 ESV
    Thank you Chilly for treating my son with honor and allowing him to do the same for you. Rest in Peace.

    • Your story reads a lot like mine… I knew Chilly from the ER at CMC. He was a frequent flier. We loved him though, even though we fought over who would have to bathe him to get his lice out of his hair and if he was going to let us wash his clothes. The many times I saw him outside of the hospital, he was always engaging, whether it be nice or mad or just funny. His story is long and heart wrenching. He comes from a great family. He has had a hard life. He has lost loves. He has been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. He always asked me for socks and after having given him socks for years, he would start to call me “Socks”. I loved it when I would hear him yell, “Hey Socks, Whatcha’ got for me”? He was the first homeless person my son knew as well. We were at the ball park the day of the game he came to. My son too thought he was there to see his game… I love that people loved Chilly no matter why they loved him. He was loved and knew he was loved. I am glad Charlotte had a chance to learn from Chilly that just because you smell bad, just because your situation is not as good as you would like it, just because you are not as healthy of stable as the next person, you are still a human! He breathed life into Charlotte and gave it that extra something that made you never quite feel alone…. I hope somebody puts something together so that something good can come from this, that is what Chilly would want. He would want to see us all together, remembering him but helping another. He knew his faults and often told my son, never drink, but I always told my son, always love no matter who it is! RIP Larry Major/CW

  13. It seems like I saw Larry/Willy most of the times I went over to VisArt on 7th Street.

    I don’t think I ever spoke to him. I’m thinking maybe that’s bad, but I can’t put my finger on why.

  14. The streets of the QC just want be the same without Willy.

  15. Pingback: Remembering Chilly Willy | The Meck Deck

  16. Willy was friends with my aunt, who passed away a little over a year ago. RIP, Willy. May we all remember to judge not, lest ye be judged also.

  17. This is a man who was a troubled soul, an artist at heart. Although people post about him being “the coolest guy in Charlotte” and “I loved getting fucked up with Chilly Willy” there was more to Larry Major. I hope people remember him for the man he was but also realize the reality of hit situation. I can only imagine what he was really feeling inside every day, behind the alcohol, drugs, and anger. RIP Larry I hope you find peace and serenity on the other side.

  18. I’ve lived in Charlotte for five years, and I say Chilly Willy regularly, I would often greet him and quietly observed him. He was definitely in is element and consistent… He was also a reminder that life goes on. His death is a lost, and his presence will be missed, on my drive uptown.

  19. I’ve known Larry since I was 17 and I am 59 now, he has always been one not to follow societies policies, but he was my friend. He was in and out of trouble for a while, but he never stole from me, I helped him out as much as I could. One time he got in my car and it took a day or two to get the stink out, but it was no big deal to me. I worked downtown for the past 12 years before I retired and all the homeless people knew who I am and I would give them change or cigarettes. I brought a couple home for Thanksgiving a few years back. Laryy claimed to be married to a girl named Melinda , who was hit by a car and died also. I have a heavy heart today because I knew this man whose life is what stories id made of , he lived life by his own rules. RIP, my good friend !

  20. Many people think of homeless people as lost souls but rarely do they try to get to really know them, only judge them. I have been fortunate to meet many kind souls, Larry being one of them. RIP Chilly Willy…

  21. Great piece, Tommy. Thanks for reminding us all that those are real people, with real stories, that we drive past and try to ignore every day.
    (Oh, and you suck for leaving the Observer. We miss you.)

  22. Bravo Tommy! Thank you!!

  23. I was outside at Jack’s when it happened. Nobody deserves how he died. It was very gruesome. This is a great article to shed light on who he really was. He was not some fictional character to be mocked. He was a human being.

  24. Tommy, You take words and give feeling to them and you help us to relate to our brothers and sisters whoever they are and wherever they are. Thank you.

  25. Thanks Tommy. Like most long time residents, I had my share of interactions with Chilly Willy – yelling at people on East Blvd or uptown, screaming at people on the other end of his invisible cell phone (always had the feeling he was making fun of the rest of us screaming at people on our real cell phones). But we met Larry one cold night sitting in Starbucks next to the Visulite waitng for a show. He came in to get warm and stopped to talk to us. The manager came over to throw him out but we asked if he could stay if we bought him something to eat and if he promised to behave. The manager agreed and so did he, we bought him some food and he told us about growing up in Charlotte, playing football, his girlfriend that died – he just stood and talked for 30 minutes or more. He also told us he just couldn’t stop drinking even though he wanted and needed to. It was really cold that night and we asked him about sleeping outside and how he’d survive the night. I remember him eating only a little of the food and hiding the rest in his coat for later. Glad I was able to talk to Larry once. He always made me think of the Darden Smith song, “Broken Branches”


    • seriously? classless post from someone who obviously did not read the article. oh, and your caps lock is on the left side of your keyboard.

      • Pat, i’t is totally obvious that you either did not get the meaning of the article, about how Larry had been trying to change for the better and help at Urban! You need to jump off your high horse, and reply with comment that would honor Larry. Please Re-Read the WHOLE article!!!

  27. Thanks Tommy for a fair portrait of Larry “Chilly Willy” Major. I have spoken to him several times when he was sober and pleasant, engaging, and interesting. I’ve also spoken to him when he was drunk and reeked like a nasty dog fart. He was a character “larger than life” whom we all knew – or knew of. He was prickly or pleasant depending on his mood – sadly, like most alcoholics. He was a recognized face of the hundreds of faceless homeless to whom we pass by each day. May his legacy will be to help us look in the eyes of the homeless and recognized them, give them a warm smile – or maybe a sandwich. In that, we can find nobility in a hard troubled life.

  28. Ive known Larry for years his talent was unbeliveable and always welcome when I would see him. He was a friend to many . He will truely be missed. Thank you Chilly for sharing your talent with my world.

  29. any one of us could be in that same situation..thanks for reminding us that Mr. Major was a human being, not some charactar to be made fun of

  30. So true. Wish more people realized this scripture.

  31. Thank you, Tommy, for reminding us of our shared humanity.

  32. Thanks for writing such a wonderful piece. Larry sat in front of us at church on Sunday at Myers Park Methodist. He stayed and talked to people afterwards and seemed really happy that day. He knelt down to speak to my children and asked each one to pray for him. That moment hasn’t left my mind since hearing of his death. May he rest in peace.

  33. Great story as always, Tommy. I see my dad a good bit in Larry. This one made me tear up a little.

  34. Thank you for making him real and not just some random homeless person from the streets. Larry could have been any one of us, if the conditions were right. He was someone’s father, brother, son, uncle, friend. Thank you for remembering he was also a member of the human race and not just a nameless faceless accident victim.

  35. But for the grace of God, there go I.

  36. When my kids were little, we’d often sit in the back of St Peters Catholic Church so if someone was acting up we could get them out quickly. Many a Sunday morning Willy would slip in the back door and sit with my family…….so sad for his life to end just as he was getting it together.

  37. I met him in the ER while I was waiting to be seen by the medical staff. I was a nurse who got sick and my wheelchair was next to his. He was kind and seemed a lost soul. I next saw him panhandling for money on the street and I waved to him and he smiled and waved back as I drove by. He always reminded me of that verse “whatever you did for the least of them…..”

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