At 6-feet-4, the peg-legged pirate towered over his “little mateys” who came for generations to the Riverview Inn on the Catawba River in search of seafood bounty and tales of far-off coves. He called himself Captain Windy.
“Ahoy mate!” the captain would bellow, always drawing smiles as big as a bedtime story.
He’d shake the little hands, kindly slap parents on the back and guide them into the fish camp off Wilkinson Boulevard just before the bridge to Gaston County. “Go on in,” he’d say. “Sit anywhere you like. If there’s someone sitting there, make ’em move. Just make yourself at home.”
That was Gilbert Winchester, who died Saturday at 82. With his twisted red mustache and elaborate Blackbeard get-up, he doubled as a good-hearted pirate and part-time waiter at the Riverview for 40 years.
He was also a country-western singer, do-gooder for children’s causes and host of Captain Windy’s “Adventures in Pirate Cove” on WBTV in the early 1960s.
Winchester, who loved nothing more than to make a child smile, died on Oak Island on the N.C. coast, where he and wife Joyce moved in 1997 from their Gaston County home in Stanley. His wife died last month.
“Captain Windy was like a cartoon character come to life,” said Ann Moody of Charlotte, who was probably 5 in the mid-1960s when she first laid eyes on him. “There was nothing scary about him. The way he spoke to children, you could tell how much he cared for them. He seemed to take great pleasure in seeing them smile and be happy.
“For me and my friends, he was the highlight of going to the Riverview.”
To one friend, Cammie Alexander of Charlotte, the captain “was larger than life. We thought he was a real pirate. We never called the (fish camp) Riverview. It was always, ‘Let’s go to Captain Windy’s!'”
A captain is commissioned
Winchester was the youngest of 11 children, raised in mountainous Swain County, on Hurricane Ridge near Needmore – west of Asheville.
He grew into a proud man, his word as binding as a contract. He met his wife driving a school bus in Bryson City. They married in 1951 and soon moved to Stanley, where Joyce Winchester had relatives.
A year later, he walked into the Riverview and asked Irwen Burns Sr. for a job. Burns made him a waiter.
But gradually Captain Windy (a play on his last name) emerged, he of the Good Ship Riverview. He dressed in tri-corner hat, blouse-sleeve shirts, kerchief, a red 9-pound pirate’s coat with gold buttons, knee britches and a peg leg.
A real peg leg. The captain always told his young mateys that a shark had taken his left leg.
Don’t tell anyone who still believes his shark story. But he really lost the leg in the Navy after a motorcycle accident that left him unconscious for 18 days and hospitalized for eight months, said his daughter, Betty Wallace.
The peg leg just added to his pirate mystique. As did the green Amazon parrot named Rita he kept perched on his shoulder. Over the years, he had three parrots, Wallace said.
“Daddy had three (artificial) legs, too, but was more comfortable with the peg leg,” she said. “We never considered him disabled. It never stopped him from doing anything.”
Winchester always had another job, mainly as a welder at Pneumafil Corp. in Charlotte.
For years, he also dispatched calls for the Gaston County Police, while Joyce dispatched calls for Stanley police.
But most knew him as the peg-legged pirate, not only at Riverview, but on his TV show (Saturday mornings at 7:30 just after Captain Kangaroo). In his pirate garb, he strummed his Epiphone guitar and sang country-western tunes in shows throughout the region.
With TV cowboy Fred Kirby, he helped raise money for children’s causes. And with Charles Keyes, the “Parson of the Hills,” he helped deliver Christmas joy to poor children in Appalachia.
Once in Stanley, Winchester put a needy child with cancer in a side-car hitched to his motorcycle and drove him around town collecting money for his treatment. They raised $12,000.
“Daddy’s concentration his whole life as Captain Windy was children,” Wallace said. “He loved being surrounded by children. Anytime a child needed help, all they had to do was call him. The only time he ever got mad was when a child was hurt.”