Raleigh, "the Oakwood," and Jimmy V

I've had the pleasure of living in Raleigh for going on 10 years now.

Eight years of that decade have been spent frequenting some of the more established "haunts" of the Capital City. (I say eight years because during my first two years in Raleigh I found myself sticking to basically a three square-mile circumference with NC State University - and primarily Lee Hall - at the center of my universe.)

In my time in Raleigh, I have managed to do some things that every Raleighite should do: take in a show at the BTI Center or The Brewery; see a movie at The Colony (actually, my first date with my wife was at The Colony); dine at the Angus Barn (though, not very frequently); many (too many?) "Alive After Fives"; and, of course, numerous NCSU sporting events.

Unfortunately, during that same amount of time, I have not partaken of some of Raleigh's more honored sites and sounds. I've yet to see a movie at The Rialto (which, honestly, there should be a law against that). For that matter, I've never even been to Raleighwood, and I've never dined at the Mecca, Second Empire, Finch's or the Farmer's Market Restaurant. For that matter, I haven't enjoyed hot dogs (without ketchup, of course) and a bottle of Coke at the Roast Grill in a good four years (which should also be against the law).

Having said all that, I was recently able to scratch one item off my "things everyone who lives in Raleigh must do" list: a visit to Oakwood Cemetery.

(Now, before you get all freaked out, keep in mind that it was late in the day in July - meaning it was a sun-filled day and there were no eerie shadows or sounds to give me goose bumps.)

I made my way through the old cemetery, first driving past the acres of Confederate headstones, all uniform and white. (Finding a place to bury the Rebel dead was the whole reason for Oakwood's existence.) I passed stone angels and obelisks, large statues, and even simple markers. I began to notice many of the same names: Horton ... Lane ... Mordecai. I passed the markers of past governors, senators and war heroes. Also interred at Oakwood is Berrian K. Upshaw, the first husband of author Margaret Mitchell and supposedly the model for "Gone With the Wind's" Rhett Butler.

I soon made my way to the far northeast corner of the cemetery, on Locust Avenue, when I stopped my car. Just beside the road, on a slight hill, was a black marble marker with the name "Valvano" etched into the top.

I then did something silly. I actually made myself read over the name of the deceased to make sure it was who I thought it was (as if Valvano is an old Raleigh name). Sure enough, by the time I had read the first letter in the name, "James Thomas," I realized exactly whose grave I was near.

It's been a decade, and yet it's still hard to believe that Jimmy V is no longer with us - at least physically, that is. The V Foundation for Cancer Research, Valvano's creation, has raised over $27 million since 1993, and has awarded over 170 research grants. Those tremendous numbers are the result of a man fighting a losing battle but fighting nonetheless.

It is because of those numbers that I was disappointed to find no evidence of recent visitation by the public at Valvano's grave that day. There was no old Wolfpack hat that some fan had left beside the tombstone; no photo of a father's child with the coach, not even flowers. I guess some part of me expected it to be like Jim Morrison's grave in Paris. In hindsight, I'm glad it wasn't. Jimmy V's grave is in a somewhat obscure place in the park; some day it will probably be in the middle of Oakwood, but at this point it's sort of on the edge, overlooking the cemetery's "Field of Honor." It's interesting that a man who adored being the center of attention in life, in death is on the outside looking in.

Alas, even the location of the grave seemed appropriate in hindsight. Just a few feet away, a crepe myrtle provided shade for the man who, in the last years of his life, lived under intense heat - both figuratively (his ouster at State) and literally (his cancer treatment).

Some day soon, perhaps I will make my way to Oakwood again. This time, maybe I'll take with me the photo of Valvano and me from his basketball camp - me in short, pastel plaid shorts (hey, it WAS the mid-'80s, after all) and V in a white "NC State Basketball" shirt and blue Nike sweat pants, with both of us holding a red and white basketball. Maybe I'll place a copy of the photo on his grave.

Then again, maybe I'll just let him be, and let him enjoy his peace. One thing is sure: I'll definitely say "Thank you" the next time I'm there. Not for the national championship or ACC titles, and not for the quick one-liners that still make people smile today, but because Jimmy V made our lives better. Not just in life, but especially in death.

The annual Jimmy V Golf Classic will be held August 22-24 at Prestonwood Country Club in Cary. For more information, call (919) 319-0441 or visit http://www.golfclassic.org.

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