I was despondent as I walked down Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, past the many businesses that reminded me of her. There was the bar where, one New Year's Eve, she'd had too much to drink, where I held her long, brown hair as she purged in the parking lot. The pizza joint that made a specialty pie I only ate with her. The library where I sequestered myself the night before finals so that I wouldn't crash at her place.
We'd been together for more than five years, through college and graduation, when I accepted my first job as a journalist. But now she was gone, our romance ended with a phone call that revealed little about why things had fallen apart. Head down, I wondered how one recovers from such a loss.
The sound of a Mozart concerto prompted me to raise my eyes. There he was. A heavy-set man with shoulder-length hair, the brown curls showing signs of gray, standing outside the Varsity Theatre. His khakis were dirty. The half-tucked button-down he wore over a white T-shirt was wrinkled. The violin under his chin and the bow in his hand were worn.
I'd seen him before, playing that same instrument: on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill as a young boy, my hand in my mother's as we walked to Pepper's Pizza for a pregame slice; on Durham's Ninth Street as a teenager, cutting it up with friends outside a tattoo parlor as we dreamed about defying our upper-class parents with fresh ink and piercings. He was a constant to thousands of kids like me, who'd grown up in the Triangle.
In the twenty minutes I sat there listening to him—this man I didn't know, but who wasn't quite a stranger—on that stormy February afternoon in 2008, I was reminded of happier times. Reminded that life, even in its worst moments, was full of possibility. Full of hope.
When the wind picked up and the sky darkened, I turned to leave. The music stopped. Suddenly I was overcome by emotion, tears welling up in my eyes. The fiddler placed a soft hand on my shoulder.
"You gonna be OK?" he asked.
"I think so," I replied.
"Well, I know so," he said, a half-smile forming on the right side of his mouth. "How about one more song for the road?"
Last week, nearly a decade after a man I only knew then as the Triangle's ubiquitous homeless violinist sent me on my way with Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," I got to thank David McKnight for his kindness.
I don't know if he understood. The sixty-nine-year-old's cancer, an inoperable brain tumor diagnosed on Thanksgiving, is growing so fast that each day he slips away a little more. Family members say it won't be long now. Days. Certainly not weeks. Perhaps by the time you read this, he'll be gone.
So as his last days loomed, I found myself wanting to unwrap the legend of how the man came to be known—depending on where you encountered him—as the Franklin Street Fiddler, the Mayor of Ninth Street, or Hillsborough Street's Handel. My search revealed a man who was so much more than that unmistakable figure Triangle residents have come to know over the last thirty years.
His legacy will be his undeniable musical genius, but before mental illness led him to the streets, I learned, he was a respected journalist known for his thoughtful editorials and keen intellect, a man who unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 1978. No matter which of his many ambitions he pursued, he took them on with determination. McKnight didn't know half-measures.
"This guy was about living with a purpose," says longtime friend and former bandmate David King. "And he truly lived how he wanted to. I don't think a whole lot of people can say that."
- Illustration by Andrew Spear
The son of civil rights leader and Charlotte Observer editor Colbert Augustus "Pete" McKnight, David Proctor McKnight was born in the Queen City on December 20, 1947, the youngest of three children.
His sister, Carson, says his intellect revealed itself before he started kindergarten, and when he picked up the violin some time around the sixth grade, it became immediately clear just how gifted he was. Before he was old enough to attend school, McKnight absorbed and repeated the lessons Carson and their older brother, Pete, brought home from class. Carson recalls how he and Pete would talk over the day's news at the table.
"It was really funny because [they] would do a replay of the Chet Huntley-David Brinkley newscast every night, in a satirical way. They were really good at it," Carson says. "[David's] mind just worked in a different way."
And his larger-than-life personality—the humor, fearlessness, and charisma he brought to everything from social interactions and sports to politics and music—made him a magnet for friends, from the boys he played basketball and roller hockey with on Truman Road to classmates inside the Charlotte public schools where he excelled as a student and musician. In high school, he was named by his peers "most likely to succeed," and he was selected as a finalist for the prestigious Morehead Scholarship.
Blake Wilson looks back fondly on the campouts and poker games that defined his childhood friendship with McKnight. And he, too, remembers the music, how McKnight, with little formal training, would pick up difficult pieces with ease—and how the violin quite literally saved his best friend's life.
When McKnight was ten or eleven, Wilson says, "He was riding a bicycle, and he was inadvertently hit by a car and trapped under the car. Well, somehow, the violin was between him and the bottom of the car. I don't know how the violin protected him, but the legend arose that the violin saved him."
During his senior year, McKnight began showing symptoms of mental illness. (His friends believe he had bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but Carson says it's unclear what condition he suffered from.) In the beginning, it wasn't debilitating, Carson says. But she recalls often "not knowing which David you were going to get."
After high school, McKnight was accepted to Duke University. He took the field as the university's mascot, the iconic Blue Devil. But he chose to leave early—he would earn a degree later in life—and travel the world instead. (He spoke twelve languages, Carson says, including Russian, French, and German.) When he returned home after several years, he took up journalism, becoming a reporter for The Durham Morning Herald, The News & Observer, and his father's paper, The Charlotte Observer.
"He was a fabulous writer and was a star at each place and wrote many highly influential editorials," Wilson says. Like his father, he tackled North Carolina's post-civil rights landscape and became a voice for the disenfranchised. (His outspokenness continued later in life: if you search for McKnight's name on indyweek.com, you'll find dozens of lengthy, sometimes pointedly critical comments on the INDY's coverage.)
Throughout it all, he kept playing music. When he began working as an editorial writer for The Fayetteville Observer in the mid-seventies, he formed a folk band with coworker Jack LeSueur and LeSueur's then-wife, Pattie. Triangle, as the band was known, stayed together for five years, playing festivals and small venues across the state. (The band's work can be seen on YouTube.)
"We had a great four- or five-year run, and David was and is such a good fiddle player," Pattie says. "But this was before David really started exhibiting signs of what would later prove to be declining mental health."