CHAPEL HILL — Chuck Barnett picked up the phone at his home in Atlanta. On the other end was John Lloyd Snipes, his best friend, whom Barnett had known since the third grade.
“Chuck, you won’t believe what’s sitting in my front yard,” Snipes said.
What might that be, Barnett asked.
“A hearse!” Snipes said.
Barnett took a moment to process that. Coming from Snipes, whose enthusiasm and playful sense of humor sometimes led in unexpected directions, it wasn’t really that surprising.
“That’s nice, John,” Barnett said. “You planning on leaving us sometime soon?”
Not at all. Inspired by the Ramblin’ Wreck, a 1930 Ford Model A that carries cheerleaders onto the field before Georgia Tech’s football games, Snipes set about converting the 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood hearse he’d bought into a four-wheeled shrine devoted, with unbridled passion, to his beloved UNC and its athletics programs.
Snipes and his “Heelraiser” – Carolina blue, festooned with UNC logos, equipped with a smoke machine, loudspeakers, a horn that sounded an ear-piercing train whistle, and flame-throwing tailpipes – quickly became regular fixtures on Franklin Street, at Tar Heel football games, in local parades and at private functions like weddings.
Everybody, it seemed, knew the Heelraiser and the big, gregarious man at the wheel – who was also the big, gregarious man underneath the Santa Claus beard in the Hillsborough holiday parade and many other functions.
Snipes, who had multiple sclerosis and other health problems, died June 5 at his Hillsborough home. He was 52.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. today, June 17, at Hillsborough Presbyterian Church, 102 W. Tryon St., Hillsborough.
Snipes grew up in Atlanta, but his family has deep roots in Orange County – his father owned the historic Ruffin-Snipes House in downtown Hillsborough – and Snipes came north to attend UNC, where he graduated in 1982.
He was deeply in love with Carolina. He wore that love proudly on his sleeve, and pretty much everywhere else.
“His house was a shrine to everything Carolina,” said Dan Baker, who met Snipes on first day at “freshman camp” at UNC in 1978 and became one of his closest friends. “Everything from the shower curtains on down was Carolina blue. Whatever could be made with a Carolina logo on it, he had it. His remote car key for the Heelraiser played the Carolina fight song.”
His house also betrayed his impish sense of humor. He loved pranks and was not above employing a strategically placed plastic dog dropping or plastic roach. He would give away fake $1 million bills with his picture on them.
“He was a wonderful, warm, giving person, and he was a little bit crazy – which I mean in the best possible way,” Baker said. “Just a big, friendly guy with a goofy sense of humor and a huge heart.”
Snipes returned to Atlanta to work in marketing for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. It was there that he happened upon the used hearse that he turned into the Heelraiser, which he took on the road for Carolina’s football games, the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis, and countless weddings, birthday parties and other events.
“He didn’t charge anything for it; he’d say, ‘Just cover my gas,’” said Charles Westfall, a good friend. “He was very generous. He did a lot of charitable work, too, with Boys Clubs, Toys for Tots, things like that. He loved to help people.”
He inherited the Ruffin-Snipes House after his father’s death and moved to Hillsborough in 2004. He brought the Heelraiser with him, of course, as well as his other favorite persona: Santa Claus.
“He loved being Santa,” Barnett said. “For my siblings, he did Santa for all the kids. He was even a Santa for pets – people would bring their dogs to him – and for private parties. He even did Santa for Dean Smith one year.
“That was John. He wanted to be Santa, the guy who brings joy to people.”
Snipes volunteered to be Santa for the Hillsborough parade five years ago.
“He told me he’d be happy to be our Santa Claus if we needed him, and we took him up on it,” said Margaret Wood Cannell, executive director of the Hillsborough/Orange County Chamber of Commerce. “He was wonderful – extremely friendly, outgoing and very, very kind. He was a great Santa, and a wonderful man.”
Snipes never married; his immediate family consisted of his three Labrador retrievers, Brut, Jake and Tar. A neighbor has taken on temporary care of the dogs and is seeking permanent homes for them.
In recent years, the MS took an increasing toll, Snipes’ friends said.
“I remember I called him and said, ‘I’m coming up, we’ve got a big game to go to,’” Barnett said. “And he said, ‘Chuck, I’m just not sure I have the energy.’ That’s when I knew the MS was starting to really get him down.”
Westfall said he met Snipes for dinner in Hillsborough just a few weeks ago.
“He had aged a lot in just a few months,” Westfall said. “His personality was the same, but that big booming voice was gone. He’d lost weight, and his voice was paper-thin.”
Tar Heel Nation and Hillsborough will miss Snipes, Cannel said.
“He was a good friend to the community and to the chamber,” she said. “Even in the last few years, when his health became difficult, he was always there. If he told you he’d be there, then he’d be there, no matter what. John Snipes was one of the best people I’ve ever known.”
Memorials in Snipes’ memory may be made to the Eastern North Carolina Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society or the Carolina Annual Fund. A tribute wall, photographs and other information is at walkersfuneralservice.com.