I wrote an obit today and worked really hard to keep from using the words “tireless,” “fierce,” and “passionate.” Not because they weren’t true, but because in Toni Yancey’s case, they were true, but their overuse might make you think Toni wasn’t the epitome of tireless, fierce, and passionate. She was; I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as dynamic, engaging, and genuine.
Dr. Antronette Yancey died Tuesday. She was just 55. She died of lung cancer, even though she was a non-smoker. She had an amazingly varied resume and I don’t think she failed at anything she tried. She was a college basketball player and a model - she was 6’2” and strikingly beautiful – she earned her MD and became a public health doctor, winding up her career at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health. She was a poet who could deliver one of her works at any time, and the author of the book Instant Recess, which I edited. She was an out lesbian with the coolest partner, Darlene Edgley. Yancey led exercise programs for the crowds at Padres and Sparks games, advocated getting healthy food into stores in the poor parts of town, and attacked educators for putting standardized tests ahead of phys ed. PE, she pointed out, was proven to raise grades.
If this sounds like Toni might have been was one of those nagging, imperious types – “I can do all this stuff, why can’t you?” – nothing could be further from the truth, and that was what was special about her. When she and Darlene had us over for dinner, we had chicken that was – gasp! – breaded. We just didn’t have a ton of it, and we also had a ton of vegetables.
She still played ball with some friends, but she had a little belly like almost everybody over 40. She didn’t want Americans to become ripped Men’s Health cover models; she just wanted us to think harder about taking better care of ourselves, and wanted government and industry to get involved … if only because it would lower health care costs and increase productivity and profits.
She was a rigorous academic, who knew you also have to inspire if you want to help people change their habits. Here are a few stanzas from one of her poems, sent out by her friends today:
And if you can recapture
Even a little of the joy
Of unbridled movement
Then just maybe
For the couch potatoes
Those of you
Too worn down
Even to fidget
And some thoughts from her friends, from that same email.
Her long limbs were essential to Toni’s life path of reaching out and walking with anyone she could inspire and motivate. Most people hope to leave one footprint in society; she has left footprints not just with those she met but through the work she has inspired us to carry on. Toni has pointed the way for thousands – family, friends, academic peers, students and everyone they touch – through education and public health advocacy across our nation. Toni Yancey’s creative, inspiring, and motivating leadership and spirit will be missed by all.
Toni, you helped a lot of people, you made a difference, you kept active for 55 years. Finally, rest in peace.
Listen, on the left, to KPCC's Nick Roman recalling the day we met Antronette.