University of Richmond honored the memories of Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis on Saturday by holding a celebration of life service for the two beloved women’s basketball staff members who died in a hot air balloon accident in May.
Hundreds of people packed the Cannon Memorial Chapel to pay their final respects to Doyle and Lewis, who lost their lives May 9, 2014 when the hot air balloon they were riding in drifted into a power line and burst into flames. The two had been attending the Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival at Meadow Event Park in Doswell, Virginia. Doyle, Westhampton College ’92, was the associate head women’s basketball coach at Richmond. Before that, she had been a record-setting guard for the Spiders, at one point making more consecutive free throws than any player of any gender in NCAA history. Doyle came aboard the women’s team’s staff several years after she graduated and was entering her 16th season on staff. Lewis was a 2011 Richmond graduate and a four-year letter-winner on the women's swimming and diving team, where she was a two-time captain. She had just finished her second year on the women’s basketball staff as the team’s director of operations.
Craig Kocher, university chaplain, began the service by thanking those in attendance and extending condolences to the Doyle and Lewis families on behalf of the entire Richmond community. Kocher was joined on the pulpit by Mary Beth Bennett on the organ, as well as Schola Cantorum, a coed campus singing ensemble specializing in classical renditions. He also announced the three honorary speakers for each alumna and introduced the procession of symbols, which was made up of items of sentimental value to Doyle, Lewis and their families.
Mementos for Doyle included portraits of her dogs, Magi and Lexi, Eagles and Phillies memorabilia to mark her Philadelphia roots and the basketball that she had shot from the free throw line to break the NCAA consecutive free throw record. Mementos for Lewis included the official documentation of Natalie Lewis Day from the City of Buffalo, a family portrait and her swimming championship trophies. Each item in the procession of symbols was carried down the Chapel center aisle toward the front of the room by a loved one of one of the deceased. The final symbol in the procession was a University of Richmond flag, carried solemnly by University President Ed Ayers.
Remembrance speeches were also planned by three members of Doyle's and Lewis’ inner circles. Doyle was eulogized by her brother Joe Doyle, colleague and friend Cathy Rossi and head women’s basketball coach Michael Shafer. Shafer highlighted Doyle’s unbelievable approachability and generosity, and stressed the extra time that she took to get to know those around her and the genuine appreciation she had had for them.
“How many people do you know in our coaching business that give gifts to the bus drivers? Every year, Ginny wrapped the presents and gave them to our bus drivers. That’s how much she cared about other people,” Shafer said. He said that what had made Doyle and Lewis such special Spiders was their passion for their alma mater, as well as their desire for it to play a bigger role in their lives than just a provider of four years of undergraduate education.
“I think it’s fair to say that school pride is something that Natalie and Ginny both completely shared, and if there was anything that brought them together, it was the fact that this university meant so much more to them than the place they went to school.” Shafer said that replacing Doyle would be a near-impossible task, and pointed to instances when coveted recruits had committed to Richmond merely because they and their families had found a particular comfort in dealing with Doyle. Shafer said that when he had come in as a new hire in 2005, he wanted to clean house and start fresh by installing his own coaching staff. It had taken Doyle, who had worked under three different head coaches, only a few hours to change Shafer’s mind.
Doyle's brother Joe said he had been both thankful and nervous when the university asked a Doyle family member to speak on his sister's behalf. Joe detailed how his sister would frequently invite her family on recruiting trips, solely to be able to spend more time with her loved ones while on the road. He said his family had been a part of the Richmond community for nearly 25 years.
“My family has been coming to [the University of Richmond] since 1990, when Ginny began playing for the team. Ginny played for three years, and coached here for 15 years. Our family lived Spider basketball year-round,” he said. “We probably came to about 90 percent of the games over those 18 years. Driving six to eight hours for every game was never an issue for us, as long as we were going to see Ginny.”
Joe said Doyle had always taken tremendous pride in her role for the women’s basketball team, and he hoped that eventually, the Ginny Doyle Memorial Fund that the school set up in her memory could be altered into an athletic scholarship fund. After all, he said, Ginny’s passion had always been helping student-athletes.
Lewis' loved ones also had nothing but effusive praise for the young woman whom they had raised. Head women’s swimming coach Matt Barany, friend and former swimming teammate Katie Sieben and her parents, Evan and Tricia Lewis, each took a turn honoring Lewis. Each listed the countless ways that Lewis had gone out of her way to ensure the people in her life knew they were important to her. From handwritten notes, to baked goods to hour-long phone calls, Lewis touched the lives of all those who she came into contact with.
Barany said that if Lewis had still been alive today, the first thing she would have done after her own service was “probably go back to her home, and write everyone here a card to say thank you for your time.” He grew especially emotional when speaking of his expecting wife, and how, though his child would never have the opportunity to know Lewis, the life she had led and the kindness she had shared would forever influence him.
Lewis' parents then spoke of the heartbreak of having to bury their daughter at the age of 24, who had also recently become engaged. However, an outpouring of support from Lewis’ hometown of Buffalo had recently uplifted the family by designating an annual Natalie Lewis Day in the area. “Sweet Natalie,” her father, Evan, said. “How much you love the city you were born and raised in, and your spirit and dedication and ever-present smile hath no hard limits.”
To so many others, Lewis was an experienced teacher, a hard-working teammate and a trusted friend. But to her parents, Lewis was simply an adored daughter who brought them nothing but happiness. “I miss our daily chats,” Lewis' mother, Tricia, said. “I miss her stories, her plights, her remarks. Her wise insights into life, and of course, her voice on the other end."
Video tributes followed each speaker, with a collection of photos featuring family and friends. Keith Gill, university athletic director, spoke briefly about the remembrance plans moving forward for Doyle and Lewis. He mentioned the memorial funds for each that had been set up by the university, and said a physical memorial was in preliminary planning stages as well. The service concluded with Schola Cantorum’s performance of John Rutter’s “God Be in My Head,” before the reception moved to the Alice Haynes Room in Tyler Haynes Commons.
Contact reporter Jacob Steinfield at email@example.com