At the corner of Nash and Pearson streets in Wilson there sits Dick’s Hot Dog Stand, a restaurant that has been a city landmark since it was founded in 1921. Back then, Nash Street was gravel and Pearson Street didn’t exist at all. Neither did Lee Gliarmis, who owns the place now. His father did, though. His name was Socrates, but everyone called him Dick.
The restaurant is a small building made of red bricks. It has parking space for about ten cars—although when at its busiest, cars line the sides of streets nearby—and it aptly personifies the city of Wilson.
Around 9 p.m. one Saturday, as he does most Saturdays around that time, Lee wiped down the last of about two-dozen tables. Around Lee, a mere mortal, are images of men whom sports have made godlike. Filling nearly every inch of wall are autographed pictures of countless sports legends. Some are heroes, some are notorious, and some are just famously comical—“Bob Uecker sat right there, right in this booth,” says Lee, pointing to the corner he just cleaned—but their memory will live on as long as sports last. Stan Musial. Harry Caray. Roy Williams. Jim Thacker. Arnold Palmer. Bones McKinney….and so many more. A storeroom out back holds more autographed pictures than Lee can hang up.
Lee wouldn’t change a thing about his life. He loves Wilson. He loves Dick’s. But this wasn’t his dream.
He became an accomplished three-sport athlete in high school, playing soccer, basketball, and baseball despite losing most of his left ring finger in third grade thanks to a slip of the saw while cutting wood one day. He went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in physical education and played those three sports, planning to one day become a coach.
But in 1950, Socrates became ill and Lee returned home, putting his degree on hold, to tend to his father and their restaurant. He was used to the work—he’d helped tend the place essentially since he was born in 1927. In 1951, Socrates died, and Lee faced a decision: take over full-time, giving up his career dreams, or let the place die with his father. His older brother Richard had been the natural heir, but he died years ago in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge.
He has no regrets, but like so many of us, had to leave his dreams as just dreams. He never finished his degree. He never played organized sports again. He never coached.
Wilson is the town that gave the world BB&T and was for years the Mecca of the tobacco industry. But like Dick’s, Wilson, since tobacco’s decline, struggles to thrive.
Lee tried expanding Dick’s five times. First, he tried renting space in the building to which Dick’s is attached. Then, Lee says, the owner backed out, and of all things, donated it to Mount Olive College in the final days of the year as a tax write-off—an astounding irony, considering the blistering rivalry between Barton College and Mount Olive athletics.
The second time, the neighbors across the street agreed to sell their land, but before anything was signed, the landowner died. His children drew straws to see who got what, and the child who drew Lee’s straw wanted no part of the deal.
His third, fourth, and fifth tries, Lee simply gained no ground with anyone, stuck like a truck in the mud, the engine roaring, the tires spinning, sending mud flying, but moving nowhere.
“Maybe the good Lord meant for me not to mess with it,” says Lee, his eyes glinting, his face rippling in a smile.
So Lee settled in and followed his Lord’s Word, blooming where he was planted. His son, also named Socrates—or “Soc,” as everyone knows him—once said, “Dad’s become as much of an institution as the restaurant. Everyone asks for him. He’s a people person and a great man.”
It’s been a long time since Wilson was the Heart of Tobacco Country. For decades since, the city has seemed to be a place where one settled, not from where one soared. There remain traces of the city’s former glory. The local semipro baseball team is nicknamed the Tobs, short for Tobacconists. Twenty minutes down U.S. Highway 301, one can visit the North Carolina Tobacco Farm Life Museum in Kenly.
Meanwhile, North Carolina became Basketball Country and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle became its capital, where its royalty resides. Barton College basketball, compared to North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, and State, was a peasant region. And about ten years ago, the U.S. 264 bypass was built around Wilson. What was once a middle ground, a rest stop, a necessary and welcoming thoroughfare for travelers, became just a blip on a GPS.
To some it may sound harsh to say that Wilson’s a place one “settles,” but it’s not a bad thing. Wilson makes for a great family town. It’s safe. It’s quiet. They have a fine recreation and parks department, plenty of athletic facilities for children to play, and several fine schools to choose from. Many a good man and woman have lived a fine and happy life there.
But, at least when it comes to college sports, Barton sports, most Wilsonians are, at best, disinterested. They’ll drive for hours to watch the Kings of Basketball Country, and why not? Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill are the homes of some of college basketball’s greatest teams. Meanwhile, in Wilson, at Barton, cheers echo through a sparsely populated gym and the baseball field’s bleachers remain only meagerly speckled. Many Wilson sports fans rarely attend a game at their hometown college.
Lee is one of two Wilsonians considered authoritative historians of the area—Alton Britt is the other—but moreover, sports are the topic of conversation at Dick’s. One could probably guess that with a glance at the walls. For years, Lee’s listened to the locals describe their trips to the Triangle to watch Duke, Carolina, State. Meanwhile, Lee, who’s 82, climbs the rickety Barton stands in that old, too-cold or too-hot gym for every game he can. Later, when he asks patrons about those games, he oftentimes gets in return blank stares or worse, laughs.
“Wilson’s always been a town that just loved to win,” says Lee.
Fike High School once won three consecutive state football championships as the smallest 4-A team in the state in the 1960s. The streak enthralled the city, and proved so compelling that, in 2000, former Wilson sportswriter Russell Rawlings chronicled the saga in his book Cyclone Country.
But that was a long time ago.
When guys like Musial and Uecker and coaches like Williams came through Wilson, it made local headlines. It was huge when they stopped by, of all places, Dick’s. Chicago Cubs sportscaster Harry Caray plugged the place once in his broadcast. When Uecker visited, he demanded the biggest burger Lee could make, so Lee slapped four patties together, grilled them into one, and stuffed it in a bun. Uecker was delighted.
Like Wilson, Dick’s is nice to visit….but only visit. None of the legends with pictures on the wall have worked there before, and they’re not sticking around to put in a shift now. It was long believed that greatness doesn’t come from Wilson. Greatness excited Wilson, then passed on.
Gliarmis gets it, why people don’t love Barton basketball games. Wilson Gym, for one thing, has no air conditioning. Even if the tiny gym reaches half capacity, it becomes suffocating. Seating is poor—there are no actual seats, just rows of rickety old bleachers that look like something from Pistol Pete’s time frame. They don’t even have handrails. Many high school gyms are nicer.
Still, Lee says those are lame excuses. “They go and root for State, Carolina, all of which you didn’t go to school at,” he says. “You pull for them, and some of them don’t ever go over there and watch their school play. That’s what gets me more than anything else…You don’t ever hear them talk about Barton unless you bring it up yourself…Wilson just wants winners. I’ve seen them pull for Carolina, State and Duke. They pull for you when you’re on top, but when you’re struggling or back to normal, they don’t give a damn about you.”
There was one year, though, when they did. One day in March 2007, Gliarmis saw his city at its finest, at its most positive, alive with anticipation and filled with vigor inspired by none other than that Barton College basketball team. His restaurant filled to overflowing, people crowding around its television to witness something unthinkable. “Boy,” he says, a laugh rolling through his words, “they gave a damn that year.”
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North Carolina has seen its share of basketball legends. Many names you remember. Michael Jordan, the legend of legends. Tim Duncan and Chris Paul, the superstars. John Wall, the fresh face on the block who played at Raleigh Word of God Christian Academy before matriculating at Kentucky for a season wherein he enraptured the college basketball world before getting drafted first overall by the Washington Wizards. There are others, such as Raymond Felton, Vince Carter, J.J. Redick, Antawn Jamison, Tyler Hansbrough, and on the list could go of those made famous in the Triangle.
Wilson was once a town from which people tried escaping, a la Odessa in Friday Night Lights. People felt how Ant felt—as though if they wanted to become anything, they had to leave, to go to greater places to become greater people. Or so people think, until something grabs someone’s attention. In 1990, Buzz Bissinger wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Odessa and its high school football team, Permian, and that book became a movie in 2004, and that movie became a popular television show.
People say what happened at Barton when Ant came could become a movie. Of course, people always say things like that, and rarely do Hollywood producers follow. But something happened that made Wilson give a damn about Barton basketball, and in the months afterward, a screenwriter and producer paid the place a visit.