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Lincoln Herald | Lincolnton, NC

home : news : news August 16, 2022

7/19/2022 7:44:00 AM

Wayne Howard

Lincolnton lost a legend on Friday (July 15th).  Kenneth Warren 'Kojak' Hambright passed away at the age of 66.

He was a Lincolnton legend, an icon. He was known all over the state, and was as much identified with Lincolnton as City Lunch, which is where he usually ate lunch before he was sent to the nursing home.

While almost everybody knew him, Kenny 'Kojak' Hambright was mostly known only for his involvement with Lincolnton High School, especially its football and band programs, and for handing out 'tickets' downtown as a 'special' unauthorized 'policeman.'

Like most, while I knew him, this reporter didn't have a close relationship, so for our remembrance article, I asked a few of those who knew him best to reminisce.

First, however, let me tell you how he became 'Kojak.' Telly Savalas played a New York detective in a tv series by that name from 1973-1978. The character was known for constantly having a lollipop in his mouth.

Years ago, Kenny showed up at a band practice, and some parents, who didn't know him, were concerned about the autistic young black man and called police. Police knew him well and knew he meant no harm, so they calmed the parents and gave him a lollipop. Somebody called him 'Kojak,' and the name stuck. Some say it was ABC officer Frank Hicks who gave it to him.

He had nicknames for most of the people he knew. "Wallyhog" was a catch-all for a lot of people. Tony Jenkins was "Mick Jagger." Ginger Carter was "Sweet G." Jane Bost was "the doctor." Robin Hawkins was "Baby Doll." Ronnie Carpenter was "Dusty Wallace." Reco Friday was "Jack Leg." Roby Jetton was "Roby Toby." Steve Bailey was "Steve Erkle."

His time with us ended at Heath House, but he never liked not being able to prowl the streets of downtown, directing traffic at the high school in the mornings, taking Lorna at City Lunch a flower, and going to all the LHS football games. Back in March 2013, he was taken to a nursing home at Triangle, and he fled...went missing for 14 hours one day, and then 'escaped' a second time.

He adjusted to Heath House, and it helped that several friends visited him almost every day.

There have been many posts on Facebook about 'Kojak.' Among them:

Ramsey Dellinger: 
To this day, I still say his phrase that always made me laugh a little.
What’s the word? "Thunderbird!" Kojak replied.
What’s the action? "Satisfaction!" he would reply again.
Kojak was a permanent fixture of Lincoln County and left so many with long lasting moments we still share. Thank you for the wonderful memories and teaching us how to love one another regardless of our circumstances and deficiencies.

Michael Shrum: 
Kojak is finally at peace; I am glad he is finally back with his family. He had been talking about his Mom lately, so I figured he was ready to go. He has been a part of my life since Junior High. The smile I got driving a bus in high school and him directing traffic for us...him directing us in Marching Band...I will always treasure his visits to the Fire Station and our trips around town to get 'vittles.' Lincolnton has lost a true legend and friend to the community. He's probably already given someone a ticket in Heaven. Rest Easy Pal. 

Brennan Travis:
Lot's of great memories with Kojak. I used to pick him up on Saturday mornings in my red Cavalier. He thought it was the fastest thing on the road. He called the car 'Old Nellie.' He would always make Kim sit in the back when she was with me. We would be going down the road and he would yell, "Let her go!" I would give it a little gas and he would get so excited. The trip always ended with a belly washer and some white powered doughnuts.

Kenny (Kojak) was the whole community's friend and people would rally to this awesome man. I was so impressed over the years about how people would look after him. City Lunch was his. Lincoln Athletics was his. Lincolnton High School was his. The fire department was his. It seemed like the whole town he owned in some way.

Coach Scott Cloninger would go out of his way to make Kenny feel special. He made Kenny a 'coach' on the football team. Good for you Coach Cloninger!

The last "ticket" that I got from Kojak still hangs on the bulletin board above my desk.

There is a life lesson that Kojak taught us so well. "Take time for the least of these." (Matthew 25: 40-45). It pleases our Father and it just might bring one of life's greatest blessings...the blessing of friendship.

Tony Jenkins, who knew him as well as anyone, shared:
It was around 1979 when I first met Kojak. It was a Lincolnton Fire Department  training night. He gave me a 'ticket,' which I had to 'pay off' with a Coke.

Another day, we had a call to Park Elementary School. We hopped aboard the truck, and when we arrived on the scene, there was Kojak. We didn't know if he somehow managed to hang on the rear of the truck; how he got there as quickly as we did we never knew for sure.

He heard me trying to sing a Rolling Stones song and he called me "Mick Jagger" from then on.

When Lincolnton was in the football playoffs, I got a call from a teacher asking if I was going to the game in Chapel Hill. I told her no, I had plans. She said she had received a frantic call and Coach Kojak said he had the 'secret play' Lincolnton would need to win the game--"and we're already in Greensboro." I called my friend and canceled my plans, picked up Kojak at Don's Gulf and we headed '10-33' (emergency) for the game. Kojak asked how fast we were going, and then told me "speed up!" After getting our tickets, I headed for the stands. Kojak was already halfway down to the field and everybody from Lincolnton was shouting "Kojak!" Security stopped him, but Coach Cloninger turned around and saw him and told them, "let him go." They did.

Karen Gibson was a close friend and caregiver who looked after Kojak. [Let me set the record straight here: there are two spellings for his nickname; some spell it Kojak (like the tv character from which it came) and others Kojack (with a 'c' inserted). Either is acceptable.]

I could spend the day writing about all the adventures of our Kojack, but instead, I would like to tell you about the Kojack I personally knew.

His eyes would light up each time he would give me a flower, or I would tell him how much I loved him, and I know my eyes did too.

While he absolutely loved Lincolnton, he loved the people of our town even more and they returned that love. Regardless of where I took him in town, he would be stopped by numerous people just to ask him how he was doing. A thirty-minute trip to Walmart would often end up being an hour or more. Without a doubt, before you left, you were given a legendary ticket by him. Over the years, I'm sure there have been thousands written.

When he was at home, he loved watching "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza" or John Wayne and eating his go to meal--a Spam sandwich--and drinking his beloved Coke (He called it his medicine).

He was so appreciative; he was always excited to show me his new shirts and shoes people would bring him. One day he arrived home proudly wearing a shirt from the Sheriff's Department, unable to hide his delight with it. The following day he came home with a shirt from the Fire Department. Needless to say; there was a little competition in our small town of Lincolnton on whom Kojack would represent. There were also so many Lincolnton Wolves shirts that you couldn't keep count. He never left his house without his football play drawn up and placed in his back pocket.

Some of the biggest smiles I ever saw on my friend Kojack was before he would go to bed at night, he would turn on his radio (given to him by the fire department) and say "Over and Out, Car 1."

Former Lincolnton High School Coach Scott Cloninger probably has more Kojak stories than anyone.

My earliest memory of Kojack was of him helping me sweep and clean up the gym. I’d always buy him a drink, a/k/a bellywasher, and something to eat, which made me a friend for life. Then he started riding with me to football practice where he was put in charge of conditioning. He would take the boys to the hill, blow his whistle, and tell them he was going to run them until their tongues fell out. With that he became “Coach” and one of my favorite people. We took him to all football games. He loved to scribble a play on his notepad and slip up behind me and say, “run this one!” Win or lose, after a game when I took him home, he would say, “it’s gonna be alright,” and that was true.

Aside from being known locally, he was known statewide because he was by my side on the field whether I was talking to a player, another coach, or an official. He was always with me and the players he referred to as “his boys.” David Cutcliffe, former Duke football coach, came to Lincolnton to recruit a player. He parked his big Duke bus in the parking lot and just like that Kojack wrote him a parking ticket. Coach Cutcliffe tried to get out of the ticket or to pay him, but he told him, “thirty days in Raleigh with bread and water!” Kojack could often be found in the school office or the county office with a school employee, he was known and welcomed anywhere.

Some of his favorite things were Kentucky Fried Chicken, where I ordered the Kojack special, which was a leg, wing, and a biscuit, Pepsi; and City Lunch hot dogs. If you gave him a quarter, he’d put it in a gumball machine to get a “diamond ring” to give to somebody. Everybody had a nickname and once you were given a name, he remembered it.

When I first met my wife Kojack was by my side and he zapped me and laughed. I couldn’t talk and she didn’t understand what was wrong with me. He gave us permission to marry because he had given her a ring first. When we were expecting our first child, he nicknamed her “Fat Mary.” Our children grew up loving Kojack. They looked forward to visiting Kojack throughout the year but especially at Christmas to take gifts of socks, shoes, chicken and bellywashers. They were occasionally late for school if we had to pick up Kojack on the side of the road and take him somewhere.

Another favorite story took place after a big come from behind win at Bunker Hill. I was driving the van with Kojack and the coaches inside and got stopped for speeding. I got out of the van and started towards the back where the policeman was and also about where Kojack was sitting in the van. You could hear him yelling, “this van will FLY!” I explained to the officer that we had just won a big game at Bunker Hill and I never carried my wallet to games. He said, I graduated from Bunker Hill. Kojack’s next comment was “thirty days in jail, just bread and water!” The van was rocking with laughter from the other coaches.

In closing, I’d like to say how proud I am of the City of Lincolnton, the residents, the business owners, our school, faculty, students, players, coaches, band directors, and band students for their friendship, support, and love for Lincolnton’s one and only Kojack! The one thing I remember most about Kojack was he could make a bad day good and a good day great by the things he said and did. He will be missed.

In addition to his involvement with football, many will remember Kojak as the unofficial LHS band director on occasion. He even accompanied the band to Washington, DC, for President Ronald Reagan's inauguration.

As for being known 'all over,' Tony Jenkins told us that years ago, he was driving a tour bus to the Outer Banks. A man in Manteo remarked, "so you're from Lincolnton?" Tony replied, yes, and the man answered "Kojak!"

Scott Cloninger posted a video on Facebook that was broadcast by a Charlotte tv station years ago:

You have to be important for your funeral to be held at the Citizens Center. Kojak's family will receive friends there Friday night (July 22nd) from 6 - 9 PM. His funeral will be there at 1 PM Saturday. He won't be laid to rest at Forest Lawn Cemetery until Monday (July 25th). A procession is planned from the LHS parking lot at 1 PM down Aspen to the Courtsquare and east on Main and NC 150 to the cemetery. Those who want to be a part of it are asked to be at the parking lot by 12:30.

There's an old Chinese proverb, "you're never really dead so long as you are remembered." Kojak's memory will live on in Lincolnton for years to come.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Tuesday, July 19, 2022
Article comment by: Carole Ross

The article on Kojak was one of the best I have ever read. All the remembrances of him were such a tribute--he would be so tickled. We should all be proud of him and strive to leave such a legacy. You all did a wonderful job including him in life and celebrating that life at his passing.

(Original comment may have auto filled under wrong name-should be Carole Ross. Thank you)

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