Campus News

Coach Art’s Carolina girl

School of Education staff member Kayla Blevins Stewart ’16 remembers her father, who learned he had advanced pancreatic cancer soon after the global pandemic hit.

A father and mother in formal attire flank their daughter, who wears a white wedding dress and holds a bouquet of roses.
Kayla Blevins Stewart and her parents, Art and Ruth Anne Blevins, in Clemmons, North Carolina, on December 15, 2018, the day Kayla married Bobby Stewart, ’17, a fourth-year student at UNC Adams School of Dentistry. (Photo by Megan Travis Photography).

Kayla Blevins Stewart ’16 is a donor engagement and stewardship officer in the UNC School of Education. Her story is part of The Well’s COVID Diaries, an occasional series exploring the physical, mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on members of the Carolina community.

The first sign that something was wrong with my dad was Christmas of 2019. He did not come to any family events that day. Christmas is my dad’s favorite holiday, and for him to say, “I don’t feel well. I’m going to sit this one out,” spoke volumes.

That was a week after one of the last things I got to do with him before COVID hit. We went to a UNC-Wofford men’s basketball throwback game at Carmichael Arena, which was really cool. Looking back, I realize he was a little off that day.

Five months later, in May of 2020, my mom called to tell me Dad had advanced pancreatic cancer. Actually, she called my husband first, because she wanted to make sure I wasn’t alone when I found out the news. Dad couldn’t bring himself to tell me, she said.

Reality didn’t set in until I drove home to Winston-Salem and turned onto the street where my parents live. When I saw my dad, we just hugged, and he started crying. I had maybe seen him cry two or three times in my life. Of course, him crying made me cry. I was a mess.

“We’re going to get through this,” he said. “We’re going to beat this.”

I had only recently started working at the School of Education when I learned about Dad’s cancer. After graduating from Carolina in 2016, I worked for the Office of University Events and the Arts & Sciences Foundation before starting my current job — remotely — during the early days of the pandemic. I remember being a bit in shock and a little nervous asking for the rest of the week off. I think I posed it as a question. My supervisor responded immediately and said, “Absolutely, take that time off.” That support and understanding meant so much to me.

Dad started chemotherapy right after Memorial Day weekend. Within those two weeks of me coming home and him starting chemo, things got really bad, really quickly. The cancer was so advanced, the doctors didn’t even label it with a stage. They just called it a very, very aggressive cancer.

Because of the pandemic, I was working remotely full-time. I was studying remotely, too, in the second year of a master’s degree program in higher education at Appalachian State. We always say that if COVID had a silver lining for our family it was that I was able to work from home, because it was just me and my mom taking care of Dad. He was a very proud person and didn’t really want anyone else’s help.

But mostly the pandemic complicated things.

For chemo treatments and tests, he went to the Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center. At the time, the hospital only allowed one person to accompany him. My mom would go with him. She has a background in health care; she recently retired from Wake Forest Baptist Health after 43 years as an X-ray technician.

Dad ended up in the hospital twice, including once in the ICU for a double pulmonary embolism — blood clots in both lungs. That was really hard, having a sick dad who has advanced pancreatic cancer in the ICU, and you can’t see him except for Facetime. I know a lot of people have dealt with similar situations.

Dad was a man of great faith, and he stayed optimistic as long as he could. He truly thought that he was going to beat the cancer. I can’t even imagine the amount of pain he was in and still pushing through.

Coach Art

My dad, Arthur Blevins, was a pillar in our community. He spent his career working for the Winston-Salem Department of Parks and Recreation. When he retired in 2017, he was a center supervisor and directed the Hanes Hosiery Recreation Center. He coached youth teams and especially loved basketball. To everyone, he was Coach Art.

He would take kids from the low-income areas who couldn’t afford to play in the AAU [Amateur Athletic Union], and he would sponsor them. They would go to the AAU tournaments and beat all the teams that were there — so much that they started getting banned. He gave those kids so much love and attention. He’s in two halls of fame — his high school hall of fame and the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Sports Hall of Fame. He has a gymnasium named after him.

All those accolades — he would tell you it was too much. He was the humblest man. He had a tough upbringing, came from a low-income family and turned down a college scholarship to work and support his family. To him, life was about being a good person. I think he taught me that. A lot of people have reached out to say that I reminded them of him because of X, Y or Z. To me, that’s the greatest compliment.

Before he got sick, my dad was big guy — 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 240 pounds. He always had this distinguished-looking black beard and mustache. I’d never seen him without facial hair. By the end of that summer, he probably weighed 150 pounds. I mean, he was skin and bone. And his beard was thin and faded. That was closest I ever came to seeing what he looked like without a beard.

Bearded man spinning a basketball in a gym with "Art Blevins Gymnasium" painted in large letters on the wall behind him.

Art Blevins in the Winston-Salem gym that bears his name. (Courtesy of Kayla Blevins Stewart)

The summer of 2020 was really tough. There’s a part of me that just kind of blocks it out.

During the first week of September 2020, Dad was admitted to hospice.

In hospice, because of COVID there was a two-person per day limit. There was no way all of his friends and admirers could visit. I’m an only child, but others besides me and mom wanted to be with him — his mother, his two brothers, my husband. We rotated shifts, which, as you might imagine, was really stressful. We didn’t know when the last day was going to be and who would be with him.

Dad passed in the early morning of September 11, 2020. Obviously, that date sticks out for all of us Americans — for the world, really. Now that day has a whole new meaning for my family.

Later that day, we had family coming over, but we were still trying to maintain physical distance. This was September 2020, months before the first vaccinations. All I wanted was to be surrounded by family and friends, not wearing a mask, just sitting and talking. But we couldn’t. It wasn’t safe. And we couldn’t hold a funeral for him right afterwards because, at the time he passed, there was a 20-person outdoor gathering limit in North Carolina, and that’s not even enough to include close family.

It was so hard. From diagnosis to his passing was less than four months. People were contacting us and saying, I had no idea his cancer was that bad. Why didn’t we get to see him?

Mom and I had a really hard time deciding what to do. Do we do the small ceremony and get that closure, or do we wait? My dad was a larger-than-life man. There was no way that we could limit who was able to come celebrate and honor him. So we decided to wait.

Throughout the past year, I buried a lot of emotions, including feelings of guilt that we never had that closure. But I also felt anger, frustration and confusion, not only over my dad’s illness but the pandemic in general — the isolation, feeling burned out.

Celebration of life

Last month, a year after his death, we held a celebration of life for my dad. A lot of people still couldn’t come because of concerns about the delta variant. We even thought of postponing again, but we went ahead with it.

Around 100 people in masks gathered in Winston-Salem’s Benton Convention Center. We livestreamed it, too.

I spoke at the service. I talked about how I was my dad’s pride and joy, how he gave me everything in the world. He loved to brag about me. I still run into people I’ve never met who know all about me because of what they heard from Dad. So the whole premise of my speech was getting to brag about him, about his incredible qualities. He had a huge heart for everyone. It wasn’t just me.

I’m the first person in my immediate family to go to a four-year college. Dad was so proud of me. I can still remember coming home from high school one day and finding this big fat envelope from Carolina. My acceptance letter. It was so exciting! My mom and dad both cried that day. Going away to school was a little overwhelming for me at first, but within the first few months, it was home. There’s a reason that now, almost 10 years later, I’m still here.

Father and daughter stand next to the Old Well.

Blevins and his Carolina girl by the Old Well. (Courtesy of Kayla Blevins Stewart)

When dad got sick, I told him I could take a break from my master’s program.

“Don’t change your routine,” he said. “Absolutely do not. You’re going to finish it.”

I guess I inherited my stubbornness and work ethic from him, because I did finish on time. But it was bittersweet when I graduated in August, and he wasn’t there.

My dad had pretty iconic handwriting, including a noteworthy signature. The gym that’s named after him has his signature painted across the wall, with the “i” in Blevins dotted with a star. He was known for his stars. He would write me notes all the time and draw stars on them. When I graduated from Carolina, he wrote me a note, calling me his Carolina Girl, with a star next to the words. After he died, I had that star tattooed on my wrist. It’s a small reminder of him that helps me through the tough days.

My mom and I shed so many tears last year. For a while, I couldn’t bear to talk about losing him. But the tough days are getting fewer and talking about him now is starting to bring me comfort because he really was the greatest.

And like I said during my speech at his celebration of life, Dad would be so sad to know I was doing anything other than living my best life because he was my biggest supporter, my biggest fan.