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A Singular Vision: The Founding of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center

Part 1
 of 2: Through force of will, Johnny Stackhouse gathered the resources necessary to bring a first-rate burn center to the people of North Carolina.

By Taylor Sisk

Johnny Stackhouse is a storyteller. He might tell you a story from his youth, like the one about the Airedale that bettered the hounds, running deer by sight alone.

Or the time he roller-skated from Mullins to Marion, a distance of some 15 miles. Granted, that’s coastal South Carolina flatland, and the road had just been paved, but still …

Or about how as a teenager, he built strip-downs, Hoover carts. See, you could buy a Model T for 10 or 15 dollars, cut off the front end, attach it to a mule and haul folks around. They’d have Hoover cart parades down the streets of Mullins, mules in a row, pulling those doggone things.

Johnny Stackhouse turns 98 on Christmas Day.

Johnny Stackhouse turns 98 on Christmas Day. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

But Stackhouse would just as soon not tell stories about himself; he prefers to deflect the attention to others.
Which is pretty difficult to do when he tells the story of how he set about fulfilling his life’s ambition – bringing to the people of North Carolina a first-rate facility for the treatment of burns.

Stackhouse will tell you he was in the business of burning people – he’s said so to many. As the owner of a business that contracted to raise power lines, he saw one too many of his men horribly burned, and saw no recourse but to dedicate himself to their care.

It took a bit of time – it took a great deal of time – and it took, on more occasions than he and many others care to recall, a departure from the decorum to which Stackhouse is instinctively inclined. The late Christopher Fordham, who served as dean of the UNC School of Medicine and then chancellor of the university, used the term “irrepressibility” in describing Stackhouse. “Tenacious” is an adjective that’s often been deployed. “Royal pain in the keister” was muttered maybe once or twice.

But what drove Johnny Stackhouse, said Bruce Cairns, medical director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center and John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery, “was an absolute, 100 percent commitment to the individuals who needed help.”

“It was never an abstraction for him,” Cairns said. “He was going to do everything he could to make sure this place was here for these people – and that meant that he would push and cajole people to make it happen.”

The North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, is today one of the finest burn-treatment institutions in the country, a 37-bed facility providing care to the people of North Carolina and beyond. It offers truly comprehensive care in an atmosphere of kindness, of compassion.

It’s the embodiment of Johnny Stackhouse’s vision.

Born John Woods Stackhouse on Christmas Day 1915 in Mullins, South Carolina, the son of a postmaster, Stackhouse is a true Southern composite, a balance of extremes, a man who “goes to his knees,” as he puts it, to ask his Lord for guidance, and who’ll curse a bit as circumstances dictate.

He sits for a chat on an early-autumn afternoon in the sunroom of what was once a vacation home, in Newport, near Morehead City. He started building on the property in 1948, and now lives there year round with his second wife, Marlys (his first wife, Katherine, died in 2006). He downplays his role in the founding of a life-saving institution. But his presence has been formidable.

Cairns has called Stackhouse the George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin of the burn center – soldier, statesman, seer – and, Cairns said, “No question; that’s what we needed.”

Stackhouse envisioned an institution that belonged to the people of North Carolina, and he set about it doing things the way they can be, and often are, done here: planting roots, building coalitions, appealing to the better angels of our nature.

It’s too expensive. Too difficult. Why would we want to take on such a burden? Burns are ugly. Too many people die. Stackhouse was told all these things, ad infinitum, but didn’t listen.

He traveled the state, knocking on doors. He may have frightened a legislator or two, and he’s certainly charmed at a few luncheons.

Stackhouse will tell you of the many thousands of people who’ve been instrumental in making the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center the quality institution it is today. But no matter who tells it, the narrative begins with Stackhouse. It’s his story, and he’s stuck with it for a very long time.

Starting out

Johnny Stackhouse had been working summers for Carolina Power & Light Company since he was 14 years old when he headed to Clemson University to study electrical engineering. He assumed he was making the next logical step in the advancement of his career.

But the only reason for going to college was to get a job, which he already had, and, after all, CP&L’s chief of engineering had told him he’d see to it the young man made a good living, college degree or no.

“‘We’ve got all the engineers we want, but it took five years to make you a foreman,’” Stackhouse recalled the man telling him. “So I dropped the engineering and went back to work as a foreman.”

So much for college; so much for the path of convention, a path Stackhouse would seldom again pursue.

Johnny and Marlys Stackhouse at their house in Newport.

Johnny and Marlys Stackhouse at their house in Newport. Photo credit, Taylor Sisk.

He met his first wife, Katherine Dunlap, while working for CP&L in Hartsville. She was a junior at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia and her father was a senior vice president for Sonoco.

Stackhouse recalled going up to Mary Baldwin for high tea during Katherine’s senior year – he’d gotten into motorcycles, Harleys, racing them on the side – and of the general impression he made in her milieu. Of her father’s initial reaction, he said: “Boy, he didn’t want nothing at all to do with me.”

When the country entered World War II, Stackhouse read in the newspaper that if you joined the Navy you could be overseas in six weeks, so he signed up with the Seabees, an enlisted man. He was first sent to New Caledonia, then to Guadalcanal and up through the islands in a pontoon-assembly unit, which he’d volunteered to lead.

While he was away, he’d become a father, and upon his return to the States was eager to get on with his life. But he was sent to Charleston and given papers to head back to the Pacific.

“While I was waiting,” Stackhouse said, “they dropped the bomb, and everything froze. You didn’t know what in the hell was going to happen.” He was soon released.

“Some people took a few hundred dollars to help them reestablish themselves,” he said. “But I never took a dime. I was just glad to get out, and I felt like they didn’t owe me anything; we’d all gone over there as volunteers.”

He’d never smoked or drank, and saved all his money while in the Pacific, sending it home for Katherine to put away. He was also making a little cash on the side, washing other sailors’ clothes (“Money wasn’t anything overseas. You could charge them a dollar for washing their pants.”) and making and marketing walking sticks, which the locals would sell to new arrivals. He’d get two or three dollars a pop for those.

A week or so after the war ended, with the money he’d saved, he started his own business.

His father-in-law was quite wealthy and had wanted to help him out. Mr. Dunlap had a hunting reserve down at Society Hill, south of Cheraw, South Carolina, and he’d written Stackhouse while he was overseas telling him he’d set him up down there with a sawmill and building-supply business.

“I wrote him back and told him my heart was in the power-line business, and I was going back to that,” Stackhouse said, “that I wouldn’t be interested in anything else until I failed with it. He never bothered me about it again.”

He went to see R.H. Bouligny, who’d employed him before the war, and told him he was going to stake out on his own. Bouligny said he’d be pleased to partner with him, provide the money and equipment and set him up with a salary.

Stackhouse said he needed to go back to Mullins and discuss it with his father. His father said, “‘Why in the hell do you want to give that man half of what you’re going to make for the rest of your life?’” Stackhouse recalled. “I hadn’t even thought the thing through.”

So he called Bouligny the next morning and told him his father was going to help him out. He bought a few second-hand trucks and some equipment from a power company and then went to a government auction, where a boy he’d gone to Clemson with sold him a few pickup trucks for a song, and that’s what he went into business with, contracting with the power companies to put up their lines. His first job for CP&L was in a town called Parkton, just outside Fayetteville.

“I didn’t drink a Coke-cola until I paid my daddy back what I’d borrowed from him, and I paid him 6 percent interest on it. He was tickled to death to get 6 percent.”

‘Talk about praying’

John Strickland tells a Johnny Stackhouse story – one the latter also tells on himself – about how Stackhouse became Goldsboro’s first hippy the day he rode into town on a Harley: “longhaired,” a WWII vet, having seen a bit of the world.

“I think he might have had a ponytail,” said Strickland, longtime president of the Wayne Oil Company in Goldsboro and a backbone of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center board of directors. “He’s a really unique individual.”

Stackhouse stayed on, becoming one of the town’s most respected businessmen. He settled his family there in Goldsboro (he has four children: John, Charles, Wilson and Kitty; seven grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren), and, through four decades of steady growth, ran Stackhouse Electric. He sold his business in 1987, giving half of its stock to his employees. He figured they’d earned it. Many of his long-timers retired the same day he did.

He isn’t entirely clear on when the idea of founding a burn center in North Carolina struck him. Certainly, from the first time he witnessed an employee suffering from a burn sustained on the job and experienced the difficulties of getting adequate care for that individual, he’d understood quite well the need.

But it was in 1967 that an 18-year-old in his employ named Bobby Hood was badly burned while out on a job during an ice storm in Roxboro. Stackhouse had to pull some strings to get him the care he needed as quickly as he needed it.

That incident made a deep impression on him. He went out alone on his 42-foot sport fisher, the Red Snapper, just drifting in the gulfstream for a couple of days, contemplating the matter and praying on it, telling the Lord that if he’d continue to help him run his business, he’d dedicate himself to this mission.

Tomorrow: Opening the doors at “one of Carolina’s priceless gems”

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