“Cheerleader” — the first word used to describe Joni Gray by the people closest to her.
Whether it was her beloved USC Trojans, her alma mater Santa Maria High, or any local athlete shining in the area, Gray was an ardent and proud supporter of sports until her death on Nov. 22.
The sudden passing of the longtime former Santa Barbara County 4th District Supervisor and community icon was not only one of the major news stories from 2017, it is also one of the top local sports stories of the year. Gray died from an aortic aneurysm. She was 75.
Fifth District County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino eulogized his longtime friend during her Celebration of Life service on Nov. 30 at the Santa Maria Elks Lodge. Lavagnino first described Gray as the following: Elected official, lawyer, teacher, rodeo queen, parade announcer, wife and mother. But Gray’s best title according to Lavagnino was — cheerleader.
"That's what I think of Joni — how much of a cheerleader she was. She was a cheerleader for her community,” Lavagnino said. “I never heard someone so passionate about her community. She wanted to tell everyone how great Orcutt was."
She not only let her community know how proud she was of Orcutt and being from the community, but shared her enthusiasm for the local athletes as the President of the Northern Santa Barbara County Athletic Round Table.
Gray was one of the people responsible for putting together the weekly luncheon held at Giavanni’s Pizzeria in Orcutt, from helping nominate the Male and Female Athlete of the Week to putting the area student-athletes on a platform to be recognized for their hard work.
The Nov. 27 Round Table was the first luncheon after her passing — and the event became a memorial for Gray.
Emcee Charles Sommer called for a moment of silence as a way to honor Gray. Round Table treasurer Yvonne Biely then shared with the crowd some quotes from Gray that were printed in 2013.
“I love to work with the athletes,” Biely read, quoting Gray. “The reason why I got involved with this was I was doing radio and I wanted to cover more high school stuff. We are not in a big metropolitan area — so we’ve got to market our kids. I just want to help people succeed. Athletes go 110 percent because they have to succeed in academics in order to play athletics. I’m drawn to people who want to succeed — and I guess that’s the cheerleader in me.”
There was even the sight of Hancock College men’s basketball head coach Tyson Aye searching for Gray during that Nov. 27 luncheon, before learning that Gray had passed.
“I was looking for her when I walked in,” Aye said. “I just wanted to publicly say how much I appreciate her for not only her support of Hancock, but our young people in the area.”
Former Lompoc High varsity football head coach and athletic director Dick Barrett sent this message to the crowd after Gray’s passing.
“All I can say is, let’s keep this thing going the way she would like it to keep it going,” Barrett said. “Athletes, you’re here to be recognized. So be thankful that you’re getting recognized.”
Gray is survived by her daughter Samantha Wood, husband George Wittenburg, stepsons Jason Brooks and Tim Wittenburg, sister Dot Hodges, niece Tammy Van Vleet and nephew Scott Giorgi.