Funeral Service Celebrates Dual Worlds of Referee Bonita Spence
MONTCLAIR, N.J. -- Whether it was Bonita Celeste Spence's court work as a primary investigator in the public defender's office in Newark, N.J., or her court duties officiating at the highest levels of women's basketball, she spanned both her career roles with great popularity.
On Monday morning some four hundred individuals from the 52-year-old Spence's two worlds came together here at Christ Church to celebrate her life follow her passing a week ago Sunday at age 51.
A second service will be held in Spence's hometown in Atlantic City by the Jersey Shore Wednesday prior to her internment.
One colleague from her law duties related later Monday at a reception in nearby West Orange at the Wilshire Grand Hotel that the Essex County courthouse was closed for the day "because no one was coming to work today anyway wether or not it was open.
"Everyone admired her whether or not they worked direectly in her office."
Added Spence's courthouse supervisor Michael Marucci, the deputy public defender for the Essex region, "She was the best. All the attorneys wanted her to work with them on cases because she had a way of getting information from people."
And for all the stereotyping by fans and even coaches on occasions in general of referees being a heartless bunch, it was evident watching Spence's colleagues who wear the stripped jerseys that they were taking the loss of their colleague and good friend pretty hard.
Charlene Curtis, a former Temple coach who is now supervisor of women's officials in the Atlantic Coast Conference and Colonial Athletic Association, noted that "Bonita's legacy should be that coaches begin to treat officials more like human beings because it has started to get out of hand, recently."
Not so, however, when it came to Spence, apparently by the large number of women's basketball notables who attended the two-hour service.
Prior to the service, which began at 11 a.m., a slide presentation ran on a screen with photos of Spence over the years in uniform and in social settings.
Spence's daughter Leslie Celeste Sekou during the service presented a home video that was taken last May on mother's day.
Debbie Williamson, NCAA women's basketball consultant as secretary-rules editor and national coorddinator, flew in from the Indianapolis headquarters of the collegiate sports' governing body.
Barbara Jacobs,who will now supervise officials in the new Big East and American Athletic Conferences after holding the position in the former Big East configuration, attended as did several other supervivors from the past and present who had Spence in their groups.
To honor Spence's memory, officials will wear a special patch with a bright color scheme that will depict a basketball with a ring surrounding it containing the name Bonita.
Though the Guru was going to be sent an image of the patch, posting here is an adventure, but he made an NCAA media official aware of the patch.
As soon as the NCAA can obtain a copy, it will post it at its various web sites and social media pages.
Spence also worked in the WNBA besides officiating colleagiate games.
Women's basketball legend Carol Blazejowki, former executive head of the WNBA New York Liberty, whose home is in Montclair, attended as did WNBA Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan and Lisa White, the Sun's strength and conditioning coach.
Former Seton Hall coach Phyllis Mangina, who was hired earlier this summer to be an assistant to new Saint Peter's coach Patty Coyle, was one of several Jersey women's basketball notables at the church.
Cathy Andruzzi, who ran the Philadelphia organizing committee for the 2000 Women's Final Four and has coached at East Carolina and several years ago Fordham, was another attendee.
The Rutgers assistants to C. Vivian Stringer attended, though the Hall of Famer was unable to appear because of Monday's NCAA-hosted confab in Indianapolis involving coaches, adminstrators, and others to discuss the findings in the White Paper on women's basketball presented by Val Ackerman prior to her becoming Big East commissioner.
Several others at that meeting besides Stringer, who might otherwise have attended, were longtime referee Dee Kantner, and Monmouth athletic director Marilyn Mc Neil, whose school in central New Jersey, Spence was the point guard when the institution became a Division I program in women's basketball.
The Guru did join the media teleconference on the way back home late Monday afternoon but most of what he would note is covered by the NCAA's posting at its website, and also by Wendy Parker and three UConn women's beat writers Jim Fuller of the New Haven Register, Rich Elliott of the Connecticut Post, and John Altavilla of the Hartford Courant.
McNeil did send a remembrance to the Guru since the last ones were posted and hers and several others, including one from Penn State women's basketball coach Coquese Washington, are posted below.
Temple coach Tonya Cardoza and assistant Waynetta Vaney made the short trip from Philadelphia as did La Salle assistant Ervin Monier and referees Dennis DeMayo and Kathy Lonergan.
Others officials, past and present, spotted, though there were many more, were Sally Bell, Violet Palmer, who worked in the NBA, Patty Broderick, Denise Brooks-Clauser, Barb Smith, Janice Aliberti, Joe Vaszily, and Lisa Mattingly.
Meanwhile, here are a few more tributes that have been received and the Guru says there is still plenty of time for more persons to email the Guru if you have not done so.
Marilyn McNeil , Monmouth University vice president and director of athletics.
This past spring, Monmouth University proudly honored Bonita with one of our Rebecca Stafford Leadership Awards during our celebration of Women in Sport Day.
Bonita was so proud, and chose to give up an official’s assignment to be there in person. She relished the honor, but Monmouth University relished her presence.
She was a force in the basketball world at the Jersey Shore, but a greater force in the wider world of women’s basketball. Monmouth could not be prouder to have Bonita as an alum, or sadder at this moment to have lost her.
(Guru's note: Over the weekend, WNBA Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault noted that his daughter Carly, then a senior, had one of her best games the night that Spence was honored. )
Coquese Washington , Penn State women's basketball coach:
Bonita was really passionate about the game and cared about doing a good job every time she stepped on the floor. She was the kind of referee coaches like; one who wanted nothing more than to be invisible and let the players shine. She will truly, truly be missed.
Pualani Spurlock , Referee:
I have known Bonita since I first started attending basketball camps as an official in 2006. Bonita has always been very motherly to me. She spoke matter-of-fact and with as much love and hope that I would succeed in this profession.
She has always been a huge supporter of my progress and recently told me at a tournament we worked last season, that she can't wait to see me work my first Final Four. It means a lot to have a seasoned veteran and one of Bonita's caliber to be so supportive on and off the court!
I worked my first Division I game with her at Temple and was terrified that I wasn't "ready". She took care of me and made sure that I didn't get myself or crew into "hot soup". I will always think highly of her and her words of wisdom. She will be deeply missed.
I hope she is line dancing while keeping a watchful eye on us all!
Taj McWilliams-Franklin , Former WNBA star and now NY Liberty assistant coach:
As a WNBA player, I remember Ms. Bonita always smiling. When she made calls,, she made sure you understood the reasoning behind the call, should you choose to complain about it.
She was always calm and focused. She never detracted from the play. She wanted the game that she loved to shine through. She did an amazing job.
I will remember and pray her family can remember those twinkling eyes. Rest now Ms. Bonita.
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