When she was a senior at Winthrop University in 2005 and Janiva “Jay” Willis’ remarkable softball career was coming to an end, her high school coach Andre Bouchard made the trip from New Brunswick, Canada – where Willis grew up – to watch her play one last game.
She hit a homerun, and then went missing from the dugout. Willis reappeared with the ball she’d retrieved from behind the fence, signed it with her number and handed it to Bouchard.
“That’s just who Janiva was – always thoughtful, always thinking of others,” Bouchard said Thursday, two days after his former player was killed in a car wreck in Texas during a cross-country bicycle tour to raise money for mentoring initiatives. “Everybody who came into contact with that young woman, has a similar story about her.”
Willis, founder and CEO of the Charlotte-based I Dream in Colors nonprofit, had started the 3,714-mile bike tour in San Diego on March 26 with her program director, Jeff Turner, and was making her way to Charlotte. The two were raising money and awareness for the nonprofit that mentors young people from low-income families in Charlotte and other cities.
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They had made their way to Van Horn, Texas, on Tuesday and Turner was driving them to their night’s lodging when their vehicle was struck by a tractor-trailer, according to the Texas State Highway Patrol. both died in the wreck.
The loss left friends, colleagues in the social work and mentoring communities, and former coaches to reflect on the polished woman with a big heart and smile.
She was raised by her mother, Kathy Silvae, and stepfather, in the Irishtown community of New Brunswick province. She was an eighth-grader the first time Bouchard saw her play.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a phenomenal athlete,’ ” he said. “The following year I got to teach her and coach her. She just exemplified unselfishness and leadership. Little did I know how amazing a human being she was.”
Her talents hit a new level her senior year, and Bouchard called Mark Cooke, Winthrop’s co-head softball coach.
Willis arrived at Winthrop “already so mature and polished,” said Cooke, who became her surrogate father.
“Jay was a long way from home and knew no one here,” he said. “She needed a support family.”
Willis found it with Cooke and wife April. Their sons, Seth and Noah, became her surrogate brothers. Willis spent Thanksgivings and Easters – and other holidays when she couldn’t make it home – at the Cookes.
She was as stellar a student as she was an athlete, Cooke said.
Summers during undergraduate and graduate schools – she earned a master’s degree in social work at Winthrop – Willis mentored four children. Often she’d bring them to campus on bikes and search for Cooke.
Willis was a four-year All-Big South softball player and was named NCAA South Carolina Woman of the Year in 2005 and a top-10 finalist for NCAA Woman of the Year that year. She is a member of Winthrop’s Hall of Fame. Her academic honors included third-team academic All-America and Arthur Ashe Scholar, both in 2005. She was a four-time Big South Presidential Honor Roll member.
She played on the Canadian national softball team in 2005 and 2007. Cooke took his sons to Canada to see her play.
“When we got there, we saw Jay grinning and leaning against a fence waiting for us,” he said. “The boys ran to her and by the time I got them, she had already stuffed my youngest son in a trash can. He said, ‘Dad, this is just like home. Jay stuffed me in the trash can!’ ”
After she got her master’s in 2008, she knocked on Cooke’s door to tell him she wanted to spend her life mentoring children from under-served communities.
“She wanted my blessing,” he said. “I pulled out my checkbook and wrote her the first check for her nonprofit. I told her, ‘Anything you want to do in life, you’ll be a great success.’
“We are all feeling a big gap today.”
Perlmutt: 704-358-5061; @dperlmutt