As a kid in Mount Airy, George Fawcett played basketball with Andy Griffith and got hooked on UFOs.
A 1944 newspaper article describing "mysterious balls of fire" spotted by American pilots over Germany during World War II sparked his imagination.
Fawcett went on to work as a YMCA director, textile employee, weekly newspaper manager and sandwich shop operator.
A longtime resident of Lincolnton, he also became known as the UFO man.
His health had declined in recent years, and Fawcett died Sunday at age 83.
During more than 65 years of research, Fawcett wrote numerous articles about unidentified flying objects in such publications as Argosy, True magazine and Flying Saucers Review. He taught a UFO course at Gaston College and investigated more than 1,200 UFO sightings, including 600 across the Carolinas. His 20,000-item Sauceriana Collection is at the International UFO Museum & Research Center in Roswell, N.M.
Fawcett founded the North Carolina chapter of Mutual UFO Network Inc., a nonprofit organization that tracks and researches reports of UFOs. The group has posted a tribute to Fawcett on its website.
"George's passing is a very sad day for UFOlogy," said Lakita Adams, state director of MUFON. "He was very passionate and dedicated to the facts. To him, it wasn't a matter of believing in UFOs, but looking at the facts and what the evidence shows."
She said Fawcett concluded that UFOs exist. As to what they were, he was still searching for the answer.
A former Randolph County Schools teacher
and environmental educator at the N.C. Zoo, Adams met Fawcett for the first time about 12 years ago. A friend introduced them at a MUFON meeting. Adams found him to be "the perfect Southern gentleman."
Fawcett became an inspiration for her and others interested in UFOs. Calling him a "founding father of an emerging science," Adams said Fawcett's investigations and efforts at public education "will probably be his lasting legacy."
'A fascinating character'
The dean of North Carolina "UFOnauts" was a "beloved man" said the Rev. G. Miles Smith, pastor of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Lincolnton, where Fawcett was a member and sang in the choir.
"He was gentle, humorous and had a wide-ranging interest in the world and a love of the world," Smith said. "He was just a sweet guy. A really genuine good man."
Lincoln County Elections Director Bill Beam said folks in the community respected Fawcett and his opinions.
"He was a fascinating character," Beam said. "He was kind, gentle and soft-spoken."
Former Lincoln County historical coordinator Darrell Harkey recalled how Fawcett used to stop by his office in the mornings for long conversations.
"He asked me questions about history," Harkey said. "And I asked him about UFOs."
Although Harkey didn't believe in UFOs, he was still interested in the subject. Harkey's cousin once had spotted strange lights hovering above Lake James while fishing one night. The lake is 40 miles west of Hickory.
Harkey said Fawcett mentioned that a large body of deep water would be a good place for a UFO to hide.
"I never met anybody who didn't like him," Harkey said. "He was always smiling."
Fawcett told the Observer in an interview in the 1990s that he'd actually seen only one UFO. That was in 1951, on the campus of Lynchburg (Va.) College, where he was a student. It was 30 feet in diameter and orange.
Fawcett called his interest in UFOs "a magnificent obsession." His philosophy: "Keep an open mind and not an empty head."
During decades as a UFO investigator, researcher, writer, teacher and lecturer, Fawcett carved out a reputation as an expert in the field.
His travels on the UFO circuit took him around the United States, Panama and England. He founded and advised five UFO study groups from New England to Florida, served as a movie consultant and wrote two books.
UFO materials filled Fawcett's Lincolnton home – photos, slides, scrapbooks, videos, alien sculptures and more than 1,000 books.
For 12 years, he tried to raise $5 million for a saucer-shaped museum in North Carolina that would house his extensive collection. In 1998, with only $100 in the pot, he blamed himself for the fundraising failure.
"I always had a six-day-a-week job and didn't have time to work on it properly," Fawcett told the Observer. "It's sad. It was a good idea."
That same year, he donated the materials to the Roswell museum. Fawcett's name lives on at a center that attracts 175,000 people a year from all over the world.
"Mr. Fawcett really contributed to our research center and library," said Roswell museum director Mark Briscoe. "He was definitely a pioneer and will be greatly missed."
A funeral service for Fawcett was set for Wednesday at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Lincolnton.
- By Joe DePriest, the Charlotte Observer