Bill Hensley obituary: North Carolina tourism sports official dies at 96

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Bill Hensley pictured with his beloved typewriter. It was “his greatest tool”, said his son Bruce Hensley.

Provided by Bruce Hensley

When Bill Hensley died, he left his family a list of people to call with the news.

“I called several of them,” his son Bruce told the Observer, “and four of those people — some of them pretty big now — said these words, ‘Meeting your dad changed my life. ‘”

As the eldest son who followed his father into the family business, he knew firsthand that his father believed in mentorship. But he still said he was “stunned” to hear the same refrain repeated by so many people.

“He was very gregarious and warm and outgoing,” Bruce said, “and he was generous in sharing his knowledge and skills to help others rise up, to be the best people they could be.”

A wide and varied career

Bill Hensley, who died in Charlotte on March 11 at the age of 96, has worn many hats in his life, much of it in his native North Carolina.

As a Seabee in the United States Navy during World War II, he helped build Enola Gay’s airstrip for his mission to drop an atomic bomb on Japan.

Later, he worked as a sports reporter for the Asheville Citizen. It was then that he learned that then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had waived the requirement that agents had to be accountants or lawyers by trade, and he decided to try his hand at law enforcement.

He trained in New Haven, Connecticut where he had immediate success.

“In his first month on the job, he apprehended two fugitives on the same day,” Bruce said.

He moved to the Chicago office – where he found it was too cold – but soon returned to his home country to help his beloved alma mater, Wake Forest, achieve a major milestone: joining the ACC.

“One of the requirements for the ACC schools was that they each had to have a director of sports information, which is basically a publicist, a public relations person. So Wake called and offered him the job, and he accepted,” Bruce said.

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Bill Hensley pictured with golfer Arnold Palmer and golf pro Dick Tiddy. Hensley and Palmer were related through their alma mater, Wake Forest. Provided by Bruce Hensley

While at Wake, Bill was able to celebrate the school’s 1955 College World Series victory and befriend another prominent alumnus, golfer Arnold Palmer. Bill knew Palmer not only because of his golf game, but also because he dated Bill’s wife, the former Carol Moore, who died in 2006.

“One of his first big assignments was writing about Arnold Palmer, because Arnold started winning all these tournaments,” Bruce said. “Dad thought, ‘As a phenomenon, this is going to be great to promote.’ … He and Arnold have become very good friends.

After some time in the same role for NC State Athletics, Bill moved on to other public relations roles.

As director of travel and tourism for North Carolina, he introduced “welcome centers” to the state, now more commonly referred to as rest stops.

“When Jimmy Carter was governor of Georgia, he started the Welcome Center program there to capture all the tourists who came to Florida. (Carter) said, “Well, let’s put these welcome centers on the freeways and capture all those pesky Yankees that come here through our state to get to Florida,” Bruce said. “And (Bill) convinced the Governor of North Carolina, Governor (Dan) Moore at the time, that we should do it. So (Bill) fell and he stole the woman who was in charge of the shelters in Georgia to come and start them in North Carolina.

Bill Hensley Liquor-by-the-Drink Burning Brown Bag with State Representative Ben Tison 09-08-1978.jpg
Bill Hensley, who advocated for the sale of ‘alcohol to drink’, burns a brown bag – associated with ‘brown bag laws’ – alongside state Rep. Ben Tison in 1978. Provided by Bruce Hensley

Bill also made headlines in Charlotte as chairman of the successful “drink to drink” campaign in 1978. This victory led to a photo of him burning a paper bag on “a 55 drum gallons” in a hotel that worked in the Observer. and was picked up by news agencies.

“He’s heard about this bag-burning photo for years from people all over the country,” Bruce said.

Bill’s professional accomplishments earned him the nickname “Dean of Public Relations” and earned him numerous accolades, including induction into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Journalism/Public Relations Hall of Fame.

His career has also opened the doors to another of his hobbies, travel.

“The Fuckiest Thing”

Bill Hensley almost visited all 50 states and seven continents, according to Bruce – just missing North Dakota and Antarctica. He used many of his trips abroad to promote North Carolina.

“He would show up with people from the Cherokee tribe, with moonshiners, stock car racers and bluegrass musicians,” Bruce said. “It was 60 years ago, so there wasn’t much going on in the state. But he would seek out those little gems and polish them. And it worked.

While many of his trips were work trips, Bill also enjoyed traveling with his family, which included his four children, their spouses and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Bruce said. A favorite destination was London, which, according to Bruce, Bill visited 19 times.

“It was the most damned thing,” Bruce said. “We would walk down the street (in London). He knew it like the back of his hand, and he had people approaching him. He was wearing a small cap, so, like, he looked British. And people were coming up to him and asking him for directions in London, and he was like, ‘You go here and you take this right here.’ And three times, I think, we were walking down the streets of London, and he met people that he knew.

Another favorite destination was South Dakota, where the family met regularly for a pheasant hunting expedition. It is a tradition that will continue.

“We’re renaming it Bill Hensley Memorial Pheasant Hunting Trip,” Bruce said.

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Bill Hensley, who enjoyed hunting with his friends and family, on a bird hunting trip. Provided by Bruce Hensley

‘What a wonderful life’

At a memorial service Wednesday at Myers Park United Methodist Church, Bill’s family and friends filled the pews as an organist performed hymns that Bill Hensley himself had chosen for the occasion. .

Bill’s friend and minister Reverend Bill Roth shared scriptures and recalled the lunches they would share, and he and Bruce noted ‘attention to detail’ in ‘death-related instructions’ of Bill.

“I’d like Bruce to give a eulogy if he wishes,” Bill wrote. “Make it short, my sweet. Mention that I was cute. You may want to hold a reception at the church after the service. If you want a family reunion at someone’s house, so be it. I will not be there.

Bruce took his father’s advice, thanking the assembled congregation for coming on behalf of the family and sharing some stories about Bill’s love of humor as a parenting tool.

“What a wonderful life he had indeed, and he would be the first to say so. He never met a stranger and he was always the link between groups of people who seemed to bring everyone together and make them comfortable and happy,” Bruce told the gathering.

“He’s a great talent and a legacy to have.”

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Mary Ramsey is a duty reporter for The Charlotte Observer. Originally from the Carolinas, she studied journalism at the University of South Carolina and has also worked in Phoenix, Arizona and Louisville, Kentucky.

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