It's hard to believe it's been six years to this exact date that the world lost one of the greatest Olympians of all time, and on a personal level, I lost a dear friend and co-hort in all things sports. Willye White was a prolific track and field Olympian who competed in five consecutive Olympics and missed out on a sixth opportunity due to an injury. White competed in every Olympics from 1956 through 1972 winning a silver medal in the long jump in 1956 when she was just a 16-year-old high school sophomore and another in the 4x100-meter relay in 1964. As unique and tremendous as these feats of athletics were, Willye's true calling came long after she stopped competing.
Her story alone is one of triumph over challenge coming from the cotton fields of Mississippi in the 1950's and ending up as one of the most honored and treasured Olympians of all time. She traveled the world and became a spokesperson and representative for the Olympic games and in my opinion, Willye B. White epitomized what an Olympic athlete is, was, and should be. With her red hair, sparkling eyes and bright smile, when Willye walked into a room, people took notice. When she was asked to speak, she wowed the crowd with her motivational catchphrases and mannerisms. She spoke of the opportunities and the better life she was able to have due to sports and the doors it opened for her. Willye White was an Olympian in sports and in life.
I had known of Willye for years because of my own love of sports and the Olympics. I came to know her in the late 1980's when I was a booking agent for a professional lecture agency. One of my clients was looking for a motivational speaker to do a job in Chicago and I had seen Willye's name on our roster of talent so I made arrangements for her to speak to this corporate group at one of the big hotels downtown. I also decided I would like to go hear her speak so I could get a better idea of how she was in front of this diverse crowd. Needless to say, not only was the crowd wowed by her, I was blown away with the way she just captivated everyone's attention and left everyone with such good feelings and positive energy. Once the speech was over and the crowd dwindled away, I went up and introduced myself to Willye as the person who booked her for the event. We hit it off immediately and talked for quite a while and I continued to book her more and more with groups all over the country. She became one of my favorite speakers and down the road, one of my dearest friends.
I became her golf coach, mentor and golfing buddy. We had some tremendous times together on the golf course and I brought her out to many fundraisers and special events as one of the celebrities. Everyone who met her was enthralled with her personality, her joy of life, and her willingness to donate her time to help whatever cause it was raise more money. She made friends easily and left a lasting impression on so many people after those events. I treasure those times we had together on and off the golf course. Willye would invite me to so many special dinners, sports awards events and Olympic related programs and I met so many wonderful and talented people through her connections. We both got and gave so much from each other and I treasure every minute of the time we spent together. I eventually joined the board of her foundation and spent many fun hours helping put together her annual Winners' Dinner which honored Chicago's top female scholar/athletes. It was a huge undertaking and Willye just about did everything herself to make this happen for nearly 13 years sometimes even using her own money to make sure those female athletes were honored for their academic and athletic achievements. There were usually over 500 people at this annual awards dinner and every year Willye got one of her pro or Olympic athlete friends to come in as the special guest speaker. It was always such a special night and the honorees talked about it for years afterward and spoke of how special it was to them to be honored by the great Willye White. It was all something to behold and Willye was the one who made it happen.
Then one day I got the call from her and I can hear her sweet voice to this day saying "hi darlin' it's Willye." (she called a lot of people darlin' which was very endearing). I said hi back to her and she said some words that made me go ice cold - "I have pancreatic cancer." I stammered and don't even remember what I said other than I wanted to cry out loud. She said "it's okay darlin' - I don't have any regrets, I've lived a good life and I'm going to fight this with all my might." And fight she did - her doctors at one point said she was cancer free - she even got invited to speak at a Pancreatic cancer symposium and she blew everyone away with her speech - there wasn't a dry eye in the house. We all had high hopes that she had beat one of the most diabolical of all the cancers...it would have only been fair because all Willye did was give to other people - she gave her time, her love and her passion for sports - her life was dedicated to helping others succeed.
Then the cancer came back with a vengeance - and Willye fought it hard but at one point her body just couldn't take it any more. I got the call on Feb. 6, 2007, that my good friend had died...and a part of me went with her. Her funeral in Chicago was a big celebration of her life attended by hundreds of people, many of them former Olympians and pro athletes from all different sports. It was very difficult for me at this very public remembrance to deal with my grief in such a public way. Instead I went out to my car and cried my eyes out.
I miss you Willye, your beautiful smile, your energy, how when you entered a room the place lit up like a Christmas tree. I miss our crazy adventures together at all of the sporting events, on the golf course, and just spending time together doing whatever came along. You had a huge impact on my life and the way I live it to this day - and the words you spoke at the end of your speeches still ring in my ear "if it is to be, it is up to me." I am thankful that I went to that speech of yours all those years ago and introduced myself to one of the most special people I have ever had the honor to call "my friend."
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