In her final days, Reba Whaley cherished a wish: To see her only daughter graduate from Appalachian State University.
That hope dimmed in recent weeks. Graduation day is Dec. 10, and Whaley, who had breast cancer that advanced to her liver, was slipping away in Charlotte.
So Appalachian State came to her.
On a day’s notice on Nov. 4, three of the university’s top officials piled into a car and drove the two hours from Boone to Whaley’s apartment.
There they put on black gowns and mortarboards. At her bedside, they thanked Whaley for sending her daughter, a studio art major, to Appalachian and said what an asset she had been to the school. The school’s chancellor has already commissioned her art.
Then they held a graduation ceremony, presenting student Sloane Whaley, reading the formal language that conferred her bachelor of fine arts degree and instructing her to move the tassel on her mortarboard from right to left.
Reba Whaley, her eyes closed, no longer able to speak, her hand in her daughter’s, smiled.
“It was just a special gift to see the mom smile,” said Dean of Students J.J. Brown, who was part of the Appalachian contingent. “There were tears everywhere. It was just a real honor to be present in that moment.”
Whaley died five days later at 49. Her memorial service will be held Saturday.
“If they had said we’ll come next week, it would have all been too late,” said Queen Whaley, Reba’s mother. “The graduation ceremony was a delightful thing, and there was a sense of relief that Reba could go to Glory knowing what had happened.”
Reba Whaley, a Charlotte native who had attended Appalachian before working as a paralegal, had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and fought it off. The disease came back in 2013. Her many friends from work, the Komen Race for the Cure, Carolinas Panthers games and dinner parties visited until the end.
The ceremony left Sloane Whaley, 25, with a feeling “of really deep sadness, because I knew it wouldn’t be the actual graduation but it would make my mom proud. I think it did.
“I was greatly humbled by that act of kindness. It was, I think, one of the last times she was fully awake and pretty aware of what was going on, and she would give a couple of smiles.”
Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region went beyond its duty in easing her last days.
Doreatha Mays-Benton, a hospice social worker, learned Whaley’s last wish during an assessment a few days before she died. After discussing it with her team, Mays-Benton called Appalachian’s office of the dean of students.
“We just have a time to get to know the patient, just to listen,” said Christy Gisinger, vice president for philanthropy at the nonprofit agency. “Oftentimes it’s been a long battle and there’s been no time for quality time.”
Making the trip from Appalachian with Brown were Vice Provost Mike Mayfield, art department Chair Clifton Meador and Alan Rasmussen from the dean’s office.
The ASU officials, Queen Whaley said, “assured us there was no place they would rather be, nothing that would dictate where they should be, than to come to Charlotte and do something for a woman who was essentially dying.”
While they were glad to make a wish come true, Brown said the gesture was really about honoring a student. And not, it turns out, for the first time.
In March, Appalachian staged a similar ceremony for a student whose father was too ill to make her graduation. The student was a softball player, and her graduation commenced on the pitcher’s mound before a game.
“They were such gentlemen,” Queen Whaley said. “They didn’t know us from Adam. They just took it upon themselves.
“People like this restore your faith in humankind.”