I will forever remember the last time I saw Clifford Earl Bullard Jr.
It was about 4 p.m. on May 10, a Wednesday, at Eagle Point, an exclusive golf course near Wilmington where Clif was a member. He was getting ready to hit some golf balls and then walk nine holes. I had known Clif for 57 years and he was as happy and healthy looking that day as I had ever seen him, but he was also relaxed, which was a rung Clif did not always reach.
The next day Clif, a fitness freak who carefully considered each morsel he would ingest, would suffer a massive heart attack that would end his life on May 18 at the age of 69 years and nine days. It is an immense loss, not only for his vast family and army of friends, but for those unknowns who might have been lucky enough to one day cross his path.
I hardly remember the first time I met Clif, but was reminded of it recently by his younger brother, Drew. It was in the mid-1960s and my late brother Doug was embarking on a juvenile career of plundering the Tanglewood community and had caused some damage at the Bullard’s home, a couple of hundred yards from ours.
Clif knocked on the door of our home, I answered and in a case of mistaken identity, was punched. My mother and Clif’s mother Martha would soon meet.
Clif and I got along wonderfully after that, and in fact he was someone I looked up to. He was a good-looking guy who always had the prettiest girl, a good athlete whose home with a large vacant lot was the gathering place to play sports, and fiercely competitive.
Clif loved Rod Stewart, which is why I did too, but Clif could pull off the spiked hair. He went to UNC and joined the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, and I would follow him to that campus and that fraternity, where I met some of my best and longest-lasting friends.
I remember well traveling with Clif and two other buddies to Dorton Arena on Oct. 1, 1975, to watch on closed circuit the Thrilla in Manila, when Ali was declared the winner after Frazier did not come out for the 15th round. I remember less well Clif and I entering the Beta House in the wee hours of a morning and Clif taking the fraternity composite while I, armed with a cartoon of eggs, held Beta brothers at bay. The composite was retrieved the next day without incident.
Clif graduated, married his beautiful college sweetheart, had four children, and went to work. I know he sold Cutco knives at one point and my mother, the forgiving sort, bought a set which is now in my kitchen. I think Clif worked as a banker for a time, but his life changed as did many others when Clifford Earl Bullard Sr. saw an ad for a Burger King franchise and Clif Jr. was soon a graduate of Burger King U.
At the time of his death, Bullard Restaurants owned more than 50 restaurants, Burger Kings, Smithfield’s Chicken & BBQs, Moe’s Southwest Grills, and others. Clif made a mountain of money that will take care of generations of Bullards. Clif understood what money was for, to enjoy, but also to spread the joy.
I fell out of touch with Clif during those decades, seeing him occasionally, but more so recently. I joined a group of older Pikas more Clif’s age for a couple of golf outings, and what struck me was Clif’s evolution as a human being.
I knew he was a huge fan of the Tar Heels and wrote the Rams Club nice checks, but didn’t know that the Kenan-Flagler Business School also benefitted from his philanthropy. I knew that he was tireless working on a golf tournament, named in his dad’s honor, that benefits the RCC Foundation, making an education more attainable for many from this county who otherwise might do without. I did not know – and that speaks loudly – that Clif’s donations to Uttermost Ministries had led to the construction of as many as 100 churches in Africa.
What I also did not know but learned is that the closing chapter of Clif’s life was defined by his relationship with Jesus Christ, that marriage to his wife Rachelle was finally a fit, that he was frequently in Bible study and was an ardent supporter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
As I became aware of all this, I began to understand better Clif’s evolution into what I would call a kinder and gentler human being. He was approachable, always flashed a smile and an encouraging word and was forever on the prowl to make better the lives of others.
His death has hit me and many others hard because, truthfully, I thought he was immortal, and he had so much more good to do.
The ending, sadly and unfairly abrupt, was storybook, coming when Clif was his best self. As much as any person I have ever known, Clif shook all he could out of this life. I am sure he will be a star in the next one as well.
Reach Donnie Douglas by email at [email protected] .