A fan's enduring impact

Hokies: Jim "Little Doc" Sinclair won't get to see his team play for the national championship, but his presence is sure to be felt.

January 04, 2000|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- When Virginia Tech plays Florida State tonight for college football's national championship, the one fan who should be there won't make it to the game.

If Jim "Little Doc" Sinclair wasn't Tech's most loyal supporter, he was among them. For most of his life he stood behind his hometown Hokies, even when rooting for a team dubbed the "choke-ies" wasn't easy. But Little Doc kept the faith. Someday they'd make it big.

Like any fan, he only hoped he'd live to see the day.

Little Doc ran a drugstore on College Avenue. His was a place where students stocked up on sundries, where locals found homemade pimento cheese and freshly squeezed lemonade.

And his was the place with the odd little graves.

You could usually find Little Doc in the store, Monday through Saturday, from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. If he wasn't in his office in the back, he was sitting on a stool at the lunch counter, having coffee.

The shopkeepers who came most mornings for a "greasy over-easy" would find him grumbling about something: Saturday's Hokies or Sunday's Redskins, Nixon or the Republicans, a bad back. Friends say he was "grouchy as hell half the time."

His wife, Gladys, would be there, too. They met when he worked at his father's drugstore, and they married in 1948, the year after his Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Hokies became the first college football team in Virginia to play in a postseason game.

Little Doc and Gladys worked side by side; they worked so much in the early days that they took their children on separate vacations. She'd take their daughter, he'd take their son.

Hardly a day went by at the drugstore that somebody didn't ask about the graves.

There were 11 of them, one for each game of the season. They were lined up in the window, each marked with a cardboard cross.

When the Hokies won, Little Doc wrote the score on the cross and filled the grave with sand. "We buried them," it was meant to say. When the Hokies lost, he left the hole open and penned a note of encouragement: "Get 'em next time."

He tended the cemetery for 22 seasons, and not once did the team allow him to fill every grave. In the mid-1960s, he added an extra one, when the Hokies went to the Liberty Bowl twice. In the 1970s, he left many open.

Little Doc didn't travel to away games because somebody had to mind the store. Sunday was the only day to relax. He didn't want his wife to cook on her day off so they went out -- as long as they got home in time for football.

He talked of retiring in the mid-1980s, when a chain drugstore came to town. By then, walking up the cement steps to his stadium seats hurt so much that he gave away his season tickets.

His Hokies went to the Peach Bowl in 1984. The same year, Gladys discovered she had breast cancer.

They retired a few years later, and Little Doc told the local paper, "I got tired of living in an institution." Half of his drugstore became a Greek restaurant called Souvlaki and the other half a bookstore named Softcovers.

The restaurant owner asked if he could continue the tradition. Little Doc came in, they had coffee, then he walked to the window and showed the man how he did it. Little Doc nearly cried.

The woman who ran the bookstore tended the graveyard the first seasons after the drugstore closed. The green tissue that lay around the graves was replaced with black cloth, and the bookseller jazzed up the sayings. When Florida State beat the Hokies, she wrote, "Holy Seminole! Hokie Man!"

By then, Gladys' cancer had spread. She and Little Doc spent retirement like honeymooners: They fished for bluegill at Claytor Lake, they stayed in their trailer at Covey's Campground, they even took a trip to Florida and drove down one side and back up the other.

Gladys died in 1993. The same year, the Hokies went to the Independence Bowl. It would become the first of seven consecutive years of postseason play.

For seven seasons, an extra grave.

Little Doc wasn't his old self in those years. He had always told his daughter, "When your mom hurts, I hurt." Now, he missed Gladys terribly. He finally moved in with his son, and took his Lazy-Boy and console TV with him, to watch the games.

Then Little Doc started having falls. If he understood he was having light strokes, he kept it to himself. Little Doc was in his recliner when he had a heart attack. He died last Jan. 9, at the age of 79.

Today, it's quiet here in the Virginia mountains. Students are on break, and everyone else is in New Orleans for tonight's Sugar Bowl, Tech's first shot at a national title. The town feels deserted. But on College Avenue, one place is getting attention.

It has been mentioned in USA Today, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and there's talk Tech's coach and star quarterback will drop by soon for a photograph. Rumor says there's a knock-off at Florida State.

It's a storefront with 12 little graves, where one fan left his mark.

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