Archdeacon: The ‘angel’ and the soccer player — an unlikely friendship

This is a story of the sermon that came to life.

It’s the tale of an “angel” and a soccer player, the tale of Jane Leigh and Bruce Anthony.

Last Sunday evening Father Satish Joseph, the pony-tailed pastor of Immaculate Conception Church on Smithville Road, spoke to his congregation about Saturday’s much-debated Ku Klux Klan rally on Courthouse Square and how people could respond.

He said “nothing works better against hate than love. Love like Jesus loved.”

He gave three examples, one of which was “love somebody of another religion, another culture, another race, another ethnicity or sexual orientation in a way you have not done before. Get to know more about them.”

And, at first glance, Jane and Bruce couldn’t seem to be more different.

She is an 87-year-old former Oakwood High School English teacher, a mother of two, grandmother of four and now a great grandmother, as well.

She lives in Centerville, but was born and raised in LaFollette, Tennessee and still has the honey-dipped accent and Southern charm that comes with it, right down to offering me a pimento cheese sandwich – the pate of the South, some say – when we finished talking at her home.

Bruce, who just turned 20, recently finished a roller-coaster freshman year as a soccer player and student at Wilmington College.

He, too, has a faint accent though its roots are more far flung. His family fled the civil war in South Sudan that caused some 2.5 million to die from war, famine and disease and displaced another four million people.

After fleeing by foot, boat and plane though three countries, his family ended up in Ghana where he was born and then lived 11 years in sparse conditions at the remote Krisan Refugee Camp. The family finally was brought to Dayton through the Catholic Social Services Resettlement Program. Three years after they got here, their home burned on North Main Street.

Bruce ended up at Belmont High School, which has an extensive English as a Second Language (ESL) program. Then through the efforts of the people who believed in him the most – from his former Belmont soccer coach and continuing champion and benefactor Julie Raiff to Wilmington coach Alex Van der Sluijs, who previously coached at Chaminade Julienne – he ended up at Wilmington.

Both he and Jane have known some hardships in their lives.

She said she grew up in a family that “didn’t have much money” and later her backbone certainly was tested when her husband left her with two young children to raise on her own.

All of that has given her an appreciation for some of Bruce’s struggles, which she learned about when I wrote a story on him last fall.

Soon after that she sent me a card with a check in it that she wanted Bruce to put toward his educational expenses.

Since I no longer work out of the Dayton Daily News office – instead mostly writing from home – I don’t have a mail box there anymore and rarely check in. Anything that comes there for me is forwarded.

But somehow Jane’s card inadvertently got put in an unused mailbox at the office and I didn’t discover it until months later.

When I found it I was embarrassed that I’d be passing the money and well-wishes on so late.

But it turned out to be perfect timing.

‘It’s good to have something to give away’

When her brother, Joe, heard she was being interviewed by a sports writer, he was a bit incredulous she said.

He wondered what on earth she would have to say about sports.

As Jane admitted with a laugh: “I don’t have an athletic bone in my body.”

That point was underscored many years ago when her daughter Carey – then just eight and adopted as is her older brother, Brad – already was showing an athletic talent that later would put her on the Centerville varsity soccer team as a freshman.

“One day she says, ‘Mom, I’m so glad I’m adopted,’” Jane said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Well Honey, I’m glad you feel that way.’

“And she said, ‘Well, if I’d been born to you, I wouldn’t be able to do anything!’…That was just priceless.”

More recently Carey – now with a family and a career of her own – has had another take on her, Jane said:

“She told me recently, ‘You’re my role model when it comes to money. I saw what you did with very little. You made a distinction between what we wanted and what we had to have.’”

Jane learned some of that growing up in LaFollette.

Her own mother had dropped out of high school to take care of her five siblings after their mother died. She then went back to school at age 23 to get her high school diploma and that love of education was passed on to her daughter.

Jane’s dad was an avid reader and that too influenced her when she went to Peabody College in Nashville and became a teacher.

She returned home to teach but ended up doing it for free when the county ran out of money. That made her especially receptive when her college roommate told her about a job as a head resident in a freshman dorm at Miami University. She worked there until she met her husband and they moved to Dayton.

In order for them to adopt back then, Jane said she had to agree to a Family and Children’s Services stipulation that required she give up work and be a stay-at-home mom, which he was for 16 years.

When her husband left and remarried, she had to go back to work and taught a year at Hillel Academy and then found a home at Oakwood High School.

Yet, she recalled “a joke” a parent once made to her early in her career there:

“He said. ‘How in the world did you ever get a job teaching English at Oakwood talking like you do?’

“I said, ‘You know, no one has ever gone out of here talking like me unless they came in taking like me. I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.’”

She ended up enshrined in Oakwood’s Sam Andrews Educational Hall of Honor.

These days she belongs to a literary club that meets twice a month to discuss the books they’re reading. And she just recently won a writing contest when she tapped into her Southern roots and wrote about the history of MoonPies.

She plays bridge and is a regular at Bill’s Donuts in Centerville, where she brings a friend there her copy of the Dayton Daily News every day after she finishes with it.

It was after reading Bruce’s continuing beat-the-odds story that she decided to reach out to him.

It’s like my mother always said, ‘It’s good to have something to give away,’” she explained.

She didn’t do it for fanfare and was a bit taken aback when I said I was going to write something in connection to Father Joseph’s sermon last Sunday.

“Make the story about Bruce,” she said.

Conversely, Bruce thought she deserved major billing:

“She was touched by my story because she is a good person. I can tell that because good people always try to help other people.”

Finding his way in college

Last fall, Bruce did well on the soccer field, playing in all 17 of the Quakers’ games, starting seven and scoring a goal against Muskingum.

But after arriving on campus the day classes started, he struggled in the classroom.

Although Raiff had gotten Van der Sluijs interested in him and a partial scholarship was offered, Bruce twice fell short with his ACT score and dream of going to Wilmington looked in doubt last August.

Finally, after a registration snag set him back even farther, he was able to take the last TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam being given in the area before school started and scored well.

He said he got his results and was accepted the day before classes began. He moved in the following day.

“I was pretty much lost and had no clue what I was doing,” he admitted.

Teammates helped him find his way around and Van der Sluijs mentored him, but he still didn’t understand what being a college student required.

Bruce said he didn’t have money for certain text books, but also admitted he didn’t manage his time wisely. He said he missed some assignments and did poorly in his first semester grades. He was told he would be ineligible to take part in soccer this past semester.

Initially crushed, he flirted with the idea of quitting school and trying to go Europe and play pro soccer.

That’s when people like Raiff and especially Van der Sluijs convinced him that was a bad idea.

“Coach Alex told me to try to think of the long term and to graduate and get a diploma,” said Bruce, who is majoring in exercise science. “He made me realize that, after soccer, what was I planning to do? He said, ‘What’s your fallback plan?’”

Although he did go to practice – “I was more like the manger,” he said – Bruce spent the past semester dedicated to his academics and he did much better.

He thought he’d get mostly Bs, but as he waited for his grades to come in, there still was the real possibility that he hadn’t upped his GPA enough to stay in school and he was worried.

That’s when I happened to deliver Jane’s gift and her well wishes.

It was a lift he needed that day, one that showed in his sudden smile.

Behind the scenes, Raiff and Van der Sluijs lobbied for him and Bruce wrote a long, heartfelt plea to Wilmington’s academic officials.

When his grades finally arrived, the turnaround was noticeable and it was determined that if he took a summer school class at Cincinnati State and did well, he’d be eligible to play this coming fall and continue with his college dream.

Next week he begins summer school. He’s also gotten a tryout with the Dayton Dutch Lions and is hoping to land a job at RiverScape or the Kroc Center.

As Raiff told me once before: “Bruce is a good kid. The world is better with a kid like him it.”

And as Jane gets to know a little more about him, she’s seeing it, too.

After getting Jane’s gift — which he plans to put toward his summer school expense – Bruce got her a thank you card and wrote a special message in it.

“It’s just a wonderful note,” she said before she got it and began reading it aloud:

“Thank you Mrs. Leigh for your hard-earned money that you gave me. I really needed it. And you were like an angel I was praying for to come save me and you did. Thank you.”

You could hear the emotion in her voice, when she said:

“How special is that?”

It’s what Father Joseph was talking about.

It’s his sermon come to life.

And it’s a good lesson for today.

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