Honoring Wimpy: ECHNA unveils plaque for pool legend
By Julian Eure
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
If Luther Clement Lassiter Jr. had been alive to see the plaque celebrating his accomplishments unveiled outside one of his favorite pool haunts on Monday, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have paid it much attention.
A quiet man who didn’t toot his own horn a lot, Lassiter — better known to Elizabeth City and the world as “Wimpy” Lassiter — wasn’t really into trophies or accolades — even though he picked up a lot of both over the course of his decades-long career as a professional billiards player.
Besides winning six world championships in pool and being considered the greatest 9-ball pool player who ever lived, Lassiter was inducted into the Billiards Congress America’s Hall of Fame — pool’s equivalent for Cooperstown — in 1983 and the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame the same year.
But despite his success and fame, Lassiter remained just “Bud” to his nephews and nieces, a number of whom gathered on Colonial Avenue Monday to watch as officials with the Elizabeth City Historic Neighborhood Association unveiled a memorial plaque to their uncle on the side of the building where he first honed his pool-playing skills.
“How many world champions do we have in Elizabeth City? So yeah, this is amazing,” said Jeff Lassiter, moments before the plaque honoring his uncle was unveiled. “We were always proud of him. He put a mark on our lives when he was around. He was our bachelor world champion uncle.”
Vidal Falcon, president of the ECHNA Board of Directors, told a crowd of about 45 outside the City Cues building that the group decided several years ago it wanted to do something to honor Lassiter. He said Marjorie Berry, a former ECHNA president, had come up with the idea for the plaque, and that Rick Boyd, ECHNA’s vice president, did all the work to install it.
Boyd also arranged the reception held after Monday’s unveiling ceremony at Ghost Harbor. As a tribute to Lassiter — who supposedly got his nickname “Wimpy” because he loved to eat hot dogs, much like the “Popeye’s” character loved hamburgers — the reception’s menu featured hot dogs.
Falcon briefly talked about Lassiter’s life and career. After telling the story of how Lassiter got his famous nickname — as a youngster he supposedly downed 12 hot dogs and a dozen orange soda pops in one sitting — Falcon related how Lassiter’s pool-playing career began.
“At one of the pool halls, the owner, because he (Lassiter) was underage, would let him sneak in the back of the pool hall where he could practice his game,” Falcon said.
The rest is billiards history, Falcon said.
Noting Lassiter had “uncanny hand-eye coordination,” Falcon said he began playing pool professionally, first as what was known then as a “hustler.” Along with his friend Rudolf Walter Wanderone Jr. — better known for his nickname “Minnesota Fats” — Lassiter began playing pool for money in pool halls in Norfolk, Virginia, “which was a big town for that,” Falcon said.
“They would go around and play all the pool halls in Norfolk to make a lot of money,” Falcon said. “When that gig sort of dried up, he had to start playing the tournaments, because that’s where you made your money.”
Jeff Lassiter noted that when his uncle began playing pool tournaments his “hustling days were over.”
Wimpy Lassiter’s tournament performances — according to Encyclopedia Britannica he competed in the Jansco brothers’ all-round championships from 1962 to 1972, winning in 1962, 1963 and 1967 — brought him a lot of fame. But apparently it didn’t always filter back to Elizabeth City.
Jeff’s brother, Clarence Doyle Lassiter Jr., recalls their mother sending him downtown to what was then the Oxena restaurant and newsstand to pick up newspapers from New York City and other big cities where Wimpy was playing in pool tournaments.
“She’d do that because The Daily Advance never put anything in there (about him winning tournaments) but a little teeny paragraph,” he said, laughing. “But (those larger newspapers) would have front-page news about it on the sports pages.”
Wimpy’s fame as a pool player also brought him in contact with Hollywood actors and other famous people of the time.
“We’d be watching TV or something at night and all of a sudden a movie star would come across, and he’d say ‘I know this guy. We played pool together. He’s a pool nut,’” Jeff Lassiter recalled his uncle saying.
One of those actors he befriended was Peter Falk, who played the detective “Columbo” for years on the TV series of the same name.
“He and Columbo were friends. He played pool with Columbo,” Jeff Lassiter said. “It was crazy to be sitting there and hear him talk about it.”
Doyle Lassiter says Wimpy also got to know Jackie Gleason, one of the actors in “The Hustler,” probably the most famous film ever about pool hustling.
Wimpy’s pool prowess also made him a lot of money. Jeff said he doesn’t know exactly how much, but he figures it was a lot given the fact his uncle gave away a lot of it — to family, strangers, anyone who needed it, particularly the poor.
Jeff remembers his uncle tipping the man who gave him his first shoe-shine $20 for a dollar-fifty tab. Doyle remembers him once tipping a waitress $100.
He was probably the most generous, however, with members of his own family, Jeff recalled.
“When he won tournaments, if he had the cash, he give you money,” he said. “I’d be ready to go out on a date on a Friday night and he’d say, ‘You got any money?’ I’d say ‘I’m alright. (I’d have a couple of dollars in my pocket.) He’d say, ‘I’ve got $10 in my pocket. So that’s $5 for you and $5 for me. I’d say,’Bud I can’t take your money.’ He’d say, ‘Take the money.’
“He kept us all in spending money,” Jeff continued. “He loved us to death. We were like his family. We were his kids.”
Jeff believes his uncle was likely more attracted to the money he earned from playing pool tournaments than he ever was the fame.
“When he’d win a trophy, he’d sometimes give it to a kid in the audience,” Jeff recalled. “My mom would say, ‘No, no, bring the trophies home ... but Bud would say, ‘What I care about a trophy for? I want the check.’”
His uncle, who died in 1988 just shy of his 70th birthday, also was attracted to pool because he found it challenging.
“He said it was the toughest sport alive because everybody can play pool,” Jeff said. “Short, fat, tall, in shape, out of shape. If you had good hand-eye coordination anybody could play pool. So you had a big field of competition.”