More than 3,000 mourners filled Kingstree Senior High School’s gymnasium Sunday afternoon to pay tribute to Sonya Burgess — science teacher, athlete, winning basketball coach, mentor, wife and mother of three school-age children.
Burgess, 39, was also pregnant at the time of her death after a car crash, her family revealed in a program distributed at the funeral.
“God decided that Sonya had done all that she could and decided to bring two of His angels home, Sonya and Baby Burgess,” the program said.
Although some 20 speakers offered tributes and reminisces, it was a talk by Burgess’s husband of 13 years, Marcus “Rico” Burgess, that riveted the crowd’s attention.
“Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this outpouring of support,” said Burgess, vice president of institutional advancement at Vorhees College in Denmark.
He, his wife and children had an arrangement, he said. “There’s a rule in our house — win, lose or draw, we’re going to kiss in the morning, and we’re going to kiss at night, and we’re going to say, ‘I love you’ and we’re going to say, ‘Goodbye’. That is why I have no regrets ... I have no regrets because I did the right thing.”
“Sonya would not want this to be anything less than a celebration, said Williamsburg County supervisor Stanley Pasley, “so let’s celebrate as she would want us to be doing.”
“Her goal was to fill her students with a love for life,” Williamsburg County School superintendent Yvonne Barnes said. “She never gave up on her students.”
Hundreds more watched on closed circuit television in the school cafeteria. Mourners included people from Burgess’ Hampton County childhood, her Claflin days in Orangeburg County, faculty and students from the 670-student Kingstree High, the greater Williamsburg County community, her fellow coaches and 11 members of her winning girls basketball team, the Lady Jaguars.
Although the funeral — one of the largest held in recent memory in Kingstree — was largely upbeat, with uplifting hymns like “When We All Get to Heaven,” there was no denying the sorrow among the crowd, nearly all of whom stayed for the entire three-hour service and afterward. More than 50 large bouquets of flowers, in numerous bright colors, bedecked her casket at the front of the gym.
“We come together in grief,” the Rev. Mary Johnson told the assembled throng, many of whom wore gold flowers with black ribbons, gold and black being the school colors.
“When I heard the news, there was a void,” longtime friend Freya Sullivan said. Another speaker said her death had brought “a darkness that was blacker than 10,000 sightless swamps.”
Burgess had taught science at Kingstree for 13 years and been girls’ basketball coach for 10 years, during that time winning a number of regional championships in the AA division.
Burgess died Feb. 18 in what the Highway Patrol called a hit-and-run in circumstances that are still being investigated. Shortly after nightfall, on a four-lane highway several miles south of Lake City heading toward Kingstree, another vehicle suddenly entered the highway in front of her.
When Burgess swerved to avoid the collision, her 1999 Ford Explorer overturned. There was no contact at all between Burgess’s vehicle and the car the patrol says caused her to overturn, according to a patrol spokesman.
The driver of the vehicle said to have caused the crash, Daveline Holmes of Georgetown County, was later arrested and charged with leaving the scene of a collision involving death. Troopers said she failed to yield to Burgess’ SUV.
After her vehicle overturned, Burgess “was ejected and subsequently struck by another vehicle. Both vehicles left the scene of the collision,” the patrol said. The patrol is still investigating and has issued no detailed statement on the exact sequence of events.
Holmes, for whom a magistrate set a $115,000 bond, was still in the Williamsburg County jail Sunday night.
The only person of prominence in Williamsburg County not to show up for the funeral was apparently longtime Sen. Yancy McGill, D-Williamsburg, who was at the bedside of his ailing mother at the Medical University of South Carolina hospital, a speaker said. Instead of a speech by McGill, a speaker read from a proclamation McGill introduced in the Senate, which said in part that Burgess was a “life-changing influence for countless young people.”
Issiah Tucker, 57, a former Kingstree teacher and now a coach at Carvers Bay High School, described Burgess as a mentor and friend during his years at Kingstree.
When he became basketball coach at Carvers Bay in Georgetown County, Burgess gave him his first scouting tapes.
“She was the first person that I called for advice,” Tucker said. “She was a sister to me, just a friend and a joy to be around.”
Cleveland Sellers, Vorhees College president who helped bring a contingent of Vorhees mourners to the funeral, said he met Burgess through her husband. “She was a very compassionate person, a caring individual. We will put our arms around Marcus and try to give him the support he needs to make it through this trying time.”