By Ann Humphreys
We all know that Carrboro is an unusual place. For most of us, this unusualness figures heavily into why we have chosen to live here. We’re weird like Austin, wacky like Berkeley, freaky like New Orleans … and, like all these more famous places, we have our beloved town characters: icons who live a little more loudly and colorfully and unusually among us — reminding us that the anti-hero, in the end, may in fact deserve a more generous helping of our love and loyalty and respect than the squeaky-clean, untouchable, vainglorious Eagle Scout.
Jack Whitebread was such an icon. Many of you will remember his droll, opinionated, charmingly ornery presence from the local watering holes he loved to frequent. Jack died of complications from esophageal cancer on Sept. 25, 2019, leaving behind a legion of friends and a community that not only embraced him but celebrated him in every dimension of his unconventional nature.
I had known Jack since I first moved to this area 25 years ago, but I can’t remember actually meeting him. He just seemed to have always been here: a permanent fixture of this kooky college town I fell in love with very much against my will. I was grateful when he agreed to an interview in the weeks following his diagnosis, which he did not hesitate to make fully public in every detail. I met with him at his apartment in Carrboro in late August and we talked for a couple of hours over the intermittent noise of the very loud air-conditioning unit.
Michael Aaron McKinney — as he was called by a few family members, childhood friends and the U.S. government — was born in Houston, TX, in 1963. His parents divorced when he was two years old, and for the next 14 years he and his older brother alternated between living with their mother and father in places as disparate as Ohio, California and Ontario. Moving often as a kid gave Jack two important life skills, he said: “When you move around a lot, you get really good at saying goodbye to old friends, and you get really good at making new friends.”
Early in life, Jack understood himself as “different.” He characterized this difference as a willingness to “just see what happens next,” allowing that “you have to have a certain kind of personality to pull it off.” Before dropping out of high school, Jack tried attending church with some friends in Indiana, where he spent his teen years.
“I guess I was looking for something. Turned out church wasn’t it … punk rock music was more it.” After quitting high school, Jack enrolled in the Job Corps and studied carpentry, a skill he used to support himself for much of his adult life.
In the summer of 1985, he decided to follow his buddy Kirk Ross’s advice and move to Chapel Hill, NC. Kirk told him that though the town was small and sleepy, there were plenty of jobs. “I borrowed five dollars from about 12 different people,” Jack recalled, “and I told them ‘If you loan me this money, I will move away from town.’” Little did he realize that we would get the better end of that particular deal.
Jack showed up here one Friday afternoon on a Trailways bus. Kirk picked him up at the old bus station on Franklin Street and drove him up and down the block, announcing, “Well, this is downtown!” while Jack thought to himself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?”
Although Kirk advised him to take it easy and wait until Monday to look for a job, Jack dove right in and secured employment within 24 hours at not just one, but two, of our celebrated local businesses: Johnny T-Shirt on Franklin Street and that bastion of fine Southern cuisine, Crook’s Corner. Jack worked in the Crook’s kitchen under legendary founder Bill Neal.
His favorite signature Crook’s dish from those early days? Easy, he said. “Sautéed chicken livers: with mushrooms, ginger, scallions, sherry and soy sauce, served over rice.” This exceedingly Southern fare no longer appears on Crook’s menu. “People back then,” Jack observed, “weren’t as picky.”
Jack went back and forth from restaurant work to carpentry and back again over the years, working for a few of Chapel Hill’s most enduring institutions: La Rez, 411 West, Spanky’s. The jobs were straightforward — dishwasher, short-order cook, kitchen manager. And he performed every imaginable kind of repair in the homes of the innumerable friends he worked for and with over the years.
Everyone who ever knew Jack understood that he was not interested in getting rich. He was just happy to get a good day’s pay for a good day’s work. In our traditional story, the hero inherits the kingdom and all its wealth and power; while the anti-hero scorns the trappings of gold and royalty, choosing instead to remain at the back door of the castle, raising a flagon with the day laborers and kitchen help, swapping stories and sharing smokes and laughs until the sun comes up in the morning. We had such an anti-hero in Jack Whitebread.
And yet, we had a bona-fide hero, as well. My own most powerful and sweetest memory of Jack will always be when I saw a photo of him on Facebook marching into the North Carolina General Assembly building to be arrested for the Moral Monday protest in 2013. Having just become an arrestee myself, this struck me, but it resonated even more because I had been (and have been ever since) trying everything I could think of to get my family and friends engaged in this kind of crucial community activism — and then there’s Jack Whitebread, the absolute last Carrboro neighbor I ever expected to see at any kind of political protest, walking up to a bunch of cops with his arms outstretched to get arrested! Jack made an indelible contribution to my faith in humanity that day.
What had sent him over the edge? What made him decide to go and get himself arrested? He was pissed off, he said, by a Republican attempt to use a motorcycle safety bill as a Trojan horse for anti-abortion legislation. “I was against the motorcycle safety bill to begin with, I just knew it was a ridiculous law, and I knew the whole reason why they were putting it in there was to try to get some anti-abortion stuff through, and then they did — or tried. And that one just put me through the roof. And I said,” [and here he initiated a low, rumbling, long-term-smoker’s scream] “Mmmmmnnnnaaaahhhhh I can’t take it anymorrrre!!!”
The hero, as we all know from fairy tales, wins the girl in the end, marries her and gets busy creating the next generation of heroes. Our anti-hero, in the end, never married and lived a largely solitary life. Yet he was the one, out of all my non-political-activist friends, who stood up for women and for all the people of North Carolina when his help was most urgently needed.
Jack’s legacy is braided into the deep friendships he forged in life, a legacy that will long outlive his physical body. How did he get his unforgettable name? “It’s just not that interesting of a story,” he told me. And he most certainly understood what made a good story. He did share that someone had once written him a $600 check made out to just “Jack.” He looked away for a moment, his startlingly bright blue eyes catching the light: “Wish I’d kept that one.”
Friends recall, as well as his honesty and fair work ethic, Jack’s irrepressible silliness. Local electrician Brad Bonneville, who worked with Jack on a variety of jobs across a span of 25 years, remembered the first day they worked on a job together. Jack picked up a nail and held it backwards, with the nail head closer to the wall, the point of the nail jutting out. He made a gesture like he was about to strike the nail on the point end, then paused and turned to Brad, saying, “Looks like they gave us the wrong kind of nails. That’s okay, we can save ‘em to use on the other side of the wall.”
Former Local 506 owner Dave Robertson, who knew Jack for more than 30 years, recalled one Halloween night when Jack was powerfully moved by admiration of Dave’s costume choice. Dave had chosen the simple route: he had taken a washable green paint crayon from Studio Supply and covered his face and neck with it. Jack saw him out that night at Pyewacket and said, “Hey, what are ya?” Dave replied, “I’m the color green, man!”
Jack was so impressed with this quick and easy costume he decided to do the exact same thing and walked right over to Studio Supply to get his own washable paint crayon. But, instead of green, he chose the color yellow, and spent the rest of the night trying to assure everybody that he was not, in fact, succumbing to jaundice.
If you’ve lived in this town for any length of time at all, chances are you’ve heard of Jack’s biggest claim to fame: as frontman for the celebrated yearly incarnation of one of American culture’s first lovingly ironic tribute bands, The Neil Diamond All-Stars. Sometime in the very late ‘80s — he said ‘88 or ’89 — Jack decided he was going to move to Memphis for a summer, and Dave Robertson threw him a going-away party (Jack liked going-away parties).
He reminisced: “I didn’t like the music that somebody was playing on the stereo, and so I went outside and got a Neil Diamond record out of my car, and put that on the stereo. And people at the party were kinda like, ‘What the hell’s Jack doin’ puttin’ on Neil Diamond?’ But after a couple minutes they all started singing along, they knew all the words — they hadn’t heard him in so many years that they didn’t remember, and the words all came back to ‘em, and everybody at the party was singing along.” Telling the tale, his gravelly voice smoothed over with satisfaction. “So, I put that on the back burner for a few years.”
Then, in 1994, Jack, who had never played or performed any kind of music before, ever, called together a dream team of local musicians to form a one-time band that would play only Neil Diamond songs — and only, Jack insisted, Neil Diamond songs from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. No one who ever saw this group perform, no matter which iteration, will ever forget it.
The original lineup featured Greg Hawks and Bryon Settle on guitar, Ellen Gray on bass, Greg Bell on keyboards, Norm Underwood on drums and Jamie MacPhail and Kathy Poindexter as backup singers. The band’s first show was a miracle of sorts: they got to open for local favorites Southern Culture On The Skids on a Friday night at Local 506.
Of the experience, Jack reflected, “When you live in a town like Carrboro or Chapel Hill, and you’ve got a new band and you play your first gig, you generally play to about 20 of your friends, most of whom don’t pay to get in, and then you hope you can make it from there. Well, my plan was to play one gig only, it was never going to be a regular band, and then we ended up opening for Southern Culture, which meant we played for 200 people, and basically it’s the smallest crowd we ever played for.”
It was late April when we learned that Jack was gravely ill. He had been working on my crawl space for the last several weeks, so I had seen and talked with him much more frequently than usual. I took note of the fact that — among the many subcontractors I worked with throughout this months-long home improvement project — Jack was one of only a handful who never ignored my texts, did great work for a more than fair price, did not treat me in a shitty and sexist way, and was unfailingly pleasant to deal with. Perhaps I, in my own shitty way, expected less of him. I know better now.
Jack went into the hospital in late May to get radiation treatment. Somehow, there was a mistake, and the radiation shot a hole through his esophagus, causing him to suffer pneumonia, heart fibrillations and blood infections. Jack refused to blame the doctors who were responsible for his care: because, he said, “no matter how many times they say ‘Oh yes, we’ve treated this cancer many times — it goes like clockwork,’ they’re still learning about it, there’s still no tried and true cure for all fuckin’ cancers, every goddamn cancer is different, and every goddamn person.”
He immediately decided he was not going to stay in the hospital, however, informing his medical team: “You told me two days ago I’d be out by one o’clock today, and if I’m not out by one o’clock today, I’m gonna rip all these tubes out of my chest and my arms, and then I am going to run down the hallway in my socks, with no slippers on, with no oxygen tank and I’m probably going to slip and fall and crack my skull open on your floor. That’s what’s gonna happen today, at one o’clock, if I’m not out.” And he was out of that hospital by 1:05 p.m.
Jack was clearly someone who always lived on his own terms, but I think he surprised us all with how fearlessly and gracefully he insisted on meeting death on his own terms, as well. Why were we so surprised? As I have talked to people and collected stories about this beloved man over the last few days, what has come through more than his humor, more than his work ethic, more than his honesty, more than his performance-art zaniness, is how reliably he showed up as a friend. And knowing this — though I also know that Jack practiced no recognizable religion of any kind– I believe him to be, perhaps more than most, a man of faith.
The kind of faith Jack practiced was the faith of friendship, the faith of being honorable and true to your word. It was the faith of knowing and owning your limits: “You can call me anytime today before 8 p.m. But after 8 p.m., I’ll be drinking beer, and so I won’t be available until tomorrow.”
It was the faith that enabled him to repair those friendships (there were more than two) bruised by his notorious temper. It was not the rarefied faith of the hero, because heroes, as we all know, never have to die. Anti-heroes die. Just like we do. And sometimes in dying they become something even greater than heroes. They become teachers.
I know that Jack Whitebread, despite all his roughness and gruffness, his chain-smoking and fabled consumption of Budweiser beer (in a can!), became a teacher to me. He taught me that it is possible to live a life of faith and friendship, even if you spend many or most of your evenings at the bar. He taught me that it is enough to earn a living by working hard and well at humble tasks. He taught me that honor and honesty are still values that deserve to be held dear, now and in perpetuity.
And he taught me that it is possible to face death with a profoundly calm good humor, to enjoy every last bit of life that is by grace left to you, and to offer the comfort and solace of your uninterrupted self to the ones who will miss you the most.
“I don’t think I’m being incredibly brave,” Jack wrote on his Facebook page. “I think I’m just being incredibly me.”
I think Jack succeeded more completely than anyone I’ve ever known in being himself every single incarnated moment of his life. And we all saw how, even in the face of obliteration, he refused to surrender that self.
“I don’t really know anything, I don’t have any philosophies about anything, I’m just gonna see what happens,” he said to me, sipping from a can of Bud as whorls of cigarette smoke wreathed his gaunt, ruddy face, still — as always — topped by a handsome, carefully combed pompadour.
“When I kick the bucket,” he went on, “Hospice, they’re gonna dress me however I wanna be buried. I could be buried goddamn naked, it doesn’t matter because I’m not gonna get cold!” He looked pleased, as pleased as a dying person who has lost a third of their body weight could possibly look. Those electric blue eyes positively gleamed through the clouds of smoke. “But I’m gonna have a Cubs t-shirt and a Cubs sweatshirt on. Y’know, just in case there’s a Cubs heaven! You never know!”
Ann Humphreys is a professional hula-hooper and writer who lives in Carrboro.