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Eulogist: McGee's life had big reach

010919 Funeral
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Attendees of Jerry McGee's funeral service descend the front steps at Christ Episcopal Church following the service in Elizabeth City, Wednesday. McGee, a former athletic director at Northeastern High School and executive director of the N.C. Athletic Directors Association, died Sunday. He was 80.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Hundreds gathered in Elizabeth City on Wednesday to celebrate the remarkable life of Jerry McGee, yet their number were far from the full measure of how influential, and beloved, the venerable athletic leader was.

McGee, 80, passed away on Sunday, and family and friends gathered in Christ Episcopal Church for his funeral. The Elizabeth City native is known as a prolific and successful football coach, including both high school and college teams, and later as an athletic director for Northeastern High School and a 25-year stint as executive director of the N.C. Athletic Directors Association, a job he retired from in 2015.

Over the years, McGee coached several championship teams and earned numerous accolades, including being named to both the N.C. High School Athletics Association Hall of Fame and the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame, and received the state of North Carolina's Order of The Long Leaf Pine Award.

Beyond the titles and awards, however, those who knew him best honored him for his tenacity, his great heart, and his sincere desire to shape not just good players, but good people.

Rey Essex, McGee’s son-in-law and eulogist, called him “the eighth wonder of the world” and a “medical marvel,” as he fought hard against illness both in his beginning and final years.

Essex said McGee was diagnosed with polio at age 3, and was told, wrongly, that he'd never walk. McGee also survived spinal meningitis at 6, a condition that led his mother to question why God put such adversity before him, Essex said.

A nun told her that God never does bad, and often gifts come to balance hardship, Essex said.

In McGee's case, those gifts were “his uncanny ability to relate to people and his photographic memory,” he said.

That ability to relate to people served him well as a player, coach and athletic director.

After graduating from Elizabeth City High School, McGee played football for Duke University, then went on to coach in Roanoke, Virginia, and then for John Holmes High School in Edenton, where his teams were undefeated state champions in 1964 and 1965. Over the next decade plus, McGee would coach for Kansas State, Southern Illinois, East Carolina, and his alma mater, Duke University, in the early 1970s.

His coaching career, coupled with his time as athletic director for Northeastern High School and then leading the N.C. Athletic Directors Association, gave McGee’s life a wide and lasting reach, Essex said.

“His friends stretch far and wide,” Essex said. “When you get a tweet from the Hawaii Athletic Directors Association, 'Aloha, Jerry McGee,' upon learning of your death, you truly have a national influence.”

McGee retained a lifelong love of Duke as well, as he would regale his family with stories there every year. Those stories also showcased his memory — he'd remember the plays, but also everything before and after, and remembered the personal details of his players, who he kept up with.

Essex also remembered McGee's wry, sometimes mischievous sense of humor.

He recalled how McGee used to drive a 1978 Dodge Ram Charger, bright orange, and wouldn't get rid of it even when it died. It sat in the family's yard for months before another vehicle hit it around Christmas time — “Santa brought auto parts,” McGee quipped to the kids, Essex said.

Following Wednesday's service, one of McGee's brothers, Mike, also shared a few words about him. Asked why his brother poured so many years into athletics, he explained it wasn't just for love of the game, but to help youth and to serve others.

“To him, to give meant you do things like that,” he said.

One player McGee helped was Billy Wallace, who played on McGee's championship teams.

“He was like a father figure to me,” Wallace said, noting he had recently lost his father when he first met the coach. He and McGee remained lifelong friends, and McGee even once lent him use of his house when his family needed it, he noted.

Dick “Rhino” Havens played with McGee while they were at Duke, and said football and coaching were simply part of McGee's “DNA.” He also saw athletics not just as fun, but a way to teach good values to young people.

“The lessons you learn on the field transpose over to life,” he said. “His legacy is going to live long past today.”

McGee’s service program states that, in lieu of flowers, the family asks donations be directed to the Jerry McGee Scholarship Endowment Fund, NCHSAA PO Box 3216, Chapel Hill, NC, 27515, or online at www.nchsaa.org.

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