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Oldest living Carolina athlete to lead Walk for Health

Bob Gersten, Carolina's oldest living basketball and baseball player, continues to remain active at 94 years old by playing tennis or golf nearly every day.

Bob Gersten, Carolina's oldest living basketball and baseball player, continues to remain active at 94 years old by playing tennis or golf nearly every day.

On any given day, it’s a reasonably simple task to find Bob Gersten.

If the 94-year-old isn’t at the Chapel Hill Tennis Club, he’s probably playing a round at Finley Golf Club. That is, of course, unless its raining. Then he’ll be heading to the movies.

No matter where he is, Gersten’s daily goal is to stay as active as he was when he first competed in Chapel Hill as a baseball and basketball player more than half a century ago.

And he wants to pass on his love of physical fitness — and lead by example — when he hosts the inaugural “Walk for Health” on April 11 at noon.

“I am excited to lead the Walk for Health because I have found that walking is truly the best form of physical fitness,” Gersten said. “It is easy on the knees, it won’t hurt your back, it’s good for your heart and it’s simple to do.”

Organizers are expecting more than 100 people to attend the two-mile walk from the tennis courts near Jackson Hall to the Finley Golf Club. Registration is not required, but is encouraged. Walkers can sign up early at UNCwalkforhealth.com.

Nicknamed the “granddaddy of UNC athletics” as Carolina’s oldest living basketball and baseball player, Gersten has dedicated his professional and personal life to promoting an active lifestyle to fend off physical ailments. First as an athlete and coach, then in retirement, Gersten has aimed to stay active by walking every day.

“Bobby is the best example that we have in this community of healthy long living,” said William Thorpe, an event organizer who spends most days driving Gersten to and from the tennis courts. “Every day he plays tennis or golf — every single day, 365 days a year.”

Gersten has always worked toward an active lifestyle. When he was a child in Long Island, New York, his mother told him to never ask for a ride.

“Walk,” she said.

That lifestyle helped lead Gersten a successful athletic career as a star baseball, basketball and football player in high school and to Carolina, where he enrolled in the fall of 1938 before joining the basketball and baseball teams.

“I came to Chapel Hill because my two best friends were one and two years ahead of me and they loved it,” Gersten said. “It was a great little college. We had 3,600 people – but hardly any girls.”

On the court, Gersten was a point guard. His sole job, he said, was to pass the ball to All-American George Glamack — one of eight basketball players to have his number retired by the University.

In the spring, he then played second or third base for Carolina’s baseball team. His position for any given game depended on eventual New York Yankee and three-time World Series winner George ‘Snuffy’ Stirnweiss.

“Whatever he played, I played the opposite,” he joked.

After graduating with a degree in physical education in 1942, Gersten served as a physical trainer and basketball coach in the Air Force during World War II before returning to his hometown to coach basketball and baseball at Long Beach High School for 14 years. He would eventually serve as the first dean of students at Nassau Community College in New York.

Despite living much of his adult life in New York and then Florida, Gersten remained intertwined with the Carolina basketball program as a scout and recruiter for decades. When head coach Frank McGuire was looking for a new assistant coach, Gersten suggested calling the Air Force Academy to ask about a member of the coaching staff.

“That day, Frank McGuire made an appointment with Dean Smith in the Kansas City Airport,” Gersten said. “And Dean came.”

Gersten also helped create a pipeline of top-ranked basketball players from New York and New Jersey to the Tar Heels. He personally drove future star Larry Brown and team captain Danny Lotz — members of the undefeated 1957 basketball team — to Carolina. Ten players from McGuire’s 1957 national championship team were from New York or New Jersey.

Two years ago, Gersten and his wife of 70 years, Libbie, moved back to Chapel Hill. He has continued to remain active and become a fixture on the golf course and at the tennis club.

Regardless of a day’s schedule, he always finds time to get out and walk – something he wants everyone to do with him on April 11.

“I don’t know how to not be active,” Gersten said. “I don’t know what else I’d do.”