Friends continue legacy of cancer patient who envisioned fundraiser she didn't live to see

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJune 20, 2014 

Cancer kept her from living to see the Bunco fundraiser she envisioned. But nothing has kept her friends from honoring her by producing a similar event to benefit the organizations she passionately supported.

The result: The second annual Friends of Mary Jane Riley Bunco Bash will be Tuesday in Central High School's cafetorium. Registration runs from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m.; play starts at 6:30 p.m.

The entry fee of $25 includes a T-shirt and dinner, compliments of Chick-fil-A and Miles To Go, and a chance to win door prizes. Proceeds will go to the Children and Family Connection of Russell County.

Riley was assistant superintendent of Phenix City Public Schools when she died last year at 66. But she was beloved in the community for more than her 40-year educational career in the system, including roles as a Spanish teacher at South Girard, and guidance counselor, assistant principal and principal at Central. She served on the boards of Habitat for Humanity of Russell County, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Children and Family Connection of Russell County and the Russell County Child Advocacy Center. She also was involved in Relay For Life and Rotary Club.

"She was actively involved in so many organizations that make a difference in people's lives because she knew sometimes all someone may need to get their life back on track was a helping hand or a kind word," said Suzy Gunnels, one of Riley's friends. "She truly loved people, and when she asked, 'How are you?' it wasn't just a platitude; she actually wanted to know how you were doing. She was a mentor, a role model, a friend and an inspiration to many people."

Riley participated in the St. Francis Foundation Bunco for Breast Care fundraiser and led the effort to start one to benefit Habitat for Humanity of Russell County. But after keeping cancer at bay for 16 years, Riley got sick again and spent several months in and out of the hospital.

"The event was postponed until our leader was physically able to participate," Gunnels said. "Unfortunately, that day never came."

Riley died May 26, 2013.

"Her family and friends were devastated with her passing," Gunnels said. "After a short time, we all knew we had to continue with her plans. We had to honor the legacy she left behind."

They did that last August through the first annual Friends of Mary Jane Riley Bunco Bash, which attracted about 150 players and raised more than $10,000 for Habitat for Humanity of Russell County. This year, the goal is to have more than 200 players and raise even more money for a different cause: the Children and Family Connection of Russell County.

"Though the initial idea was conceived as a fundraiser for Habitat," Gunnels said, "we wanted to honor her by supporting all the organizations with which she was involved."

So the recipient of the proceeds will rotate each year.

Along with Gunnels, the Friends of Mary Jane Riley Committee members are Carol Argo, Becky Benton, Nancy Bunton, Dorothy Giles, Morgan Riley, Meredith Riley-Stewart, Pat Waldrop and Lori White.

"This group of Mary Jane's friends may not change the world," Gunnels said, "but we do have the power to make positive contributions by remembering our dear friend and continuing her legacy and servant leadership."


To register in advance for the Friends of Mary Jane Riley Bunco Bash, pick up a form at any Miles To Go restaurant. For more information about the event, call Carol Argo at 706-681-5730.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter

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