CHAPEL HILL, N.C. >> The old man who is the oldest University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill basketball and baseball player alive let go of his walker and took a seat in front of Silent Sam.
The cool afternoon air on April 8 bothered the 97-year-old, a little.
But Bobby Gersten 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.
Besides being the oldest UNC athlete walking the earth, Gersten is the co-founder of the Walk for Health along with its director, William Thorpe.
Thorpe and Gersten held American flags and the Carolina blue flags of their university.
Passersby watched as they walked across the McCorkle Place quad, some briefly stopping to listen.
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.
Gersten’s wife of 71 years, Libbie Gersten, died in 2015. Born in Ashville, Libbie met Bobby Gersten on the UNC campus.
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.
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.”
The statue doesn’t symbolize anything that’s valuable, he said.