For Billy: Ice bucket challenge strikes chord in Canton

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It has invaded Facebook feeds and captured hearts from coast to coast. It has united pro athletes and politicians, soccer moms and CEOs, and it has raised millions of dollars and much-needed awareness for an incurable and devastating disease.

Carol Duggan celebrates after completing the ice bucket challenge.

Carol Duggan celebrates after completing the ice bucket challenge.

It is the now ubiquitous “ice bucket challenge” to strike out ALS, and it has taken on a special meaning across Canton, where residents are still coming to grips with the sudden passing of Billy Cravens, a lifelong Cantonite and former Bulldog legend who lost his battle with the disease in April at the age of 56.

“Everybody just misses him so much,” said Billy’s wife of 26 years, Rosey Cravens, who recently posted her own ice bucket video after being nominated by her sister-in-law Carol Duggan. “It’s been so hard not only for me and our family, but for a lot of people in Canton.”

Over the past few weeks, there have been dozens, and likely hundreds of local residents who have taken up the cause, either by posting their own challenge video, donating to one of several ALS organizations, or doing both — often with a shout-out to Billy or a hashtag such as #friendsofbillycravens or #weloveubilly included in their message.

Rosey said the local response to the challenge has been “absolutely amazing,” adding that the real hero in all of this has been Peter Frates, the 29-year-old former BC baseball captain with ALS who ignited the movement when he began spreading the word through social media back in July.

Frates, who has become the face of the campaign, reportedly got the idea from fellow ALS patient and friend Patrick Quinn, and before that a similar challenge was launched by the University of Arizona women’s basketball team to help raise money for the Kay Yow Cancer Foundation.

But irrespective of how the challenge actually got started, the fact of the matter is that it appears to have gotten people talking about (and donating to) ALS — a nightmare of a disease that worsens over time, attacking and destroying muscles while keeping the mind wholly intact, eventually taking away one’s ability to move, eat, speak, or breathe.

“I feel like ALS has been around way too long for there not to be more headway on a cure,” noted Duggan, who witnessed the destructive power of the disease firsthand with her brother.

Duggan said her heart “absolutely breaks” when she thinks about someone like Frates, a husband and soon-to-be dad who went from mashing homeruns just a few years ago to being confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak.

“To think that someone so young is going through this with such grace and determination to raise awareness makes me just sit in amazement,” Duggan said. “He and his wife and family have done so much to raise money for research and to make ALS a disease that more people are hearing about and are hopefully doing something about.”

Duggan said her brother Billy would have “loved the [ice bucket] challenge and to watch it play forward.”

And in many respects, Billy was a lot like Frates — big-bodied, athletic, and outgoing, with a zest for life and a caring spirit.

Billy and Rosey Cravens

Billy and Rosey Cravens

“He was always so affectionate,” recalled Rosey, who was only 21 when the two started dating in the winter of 1985. “Some people are not affectionate in front of other people, but Billy would think nothing of giving me a kiss or a hug.”

Rosey said the two of them always did “everything together” and were deeply in love.

“I just need to talk to him so bad,” she said, fighting back tears. “I just miss him so bad.”

Rosey said that one of the hardest parts about losing Billy to ALS was how quickly it happened, although she is happy that he didn’t have to endure years of pain and suffering. Still, she figured she would at least have a few weeks after hospice came to the house before she had to say goodbye.

“I had no clue that it would happen so quickly,” she said. “In a way it was easier, but I kind of wish he had talked to me that night, you know, to say, ‘Honey, I love you.’”

Today, four months after his passing, Rosey is still working through the grieving process and still has her moments when she feels lost and alone.

She often goes to Billy’s gravesite just to sit and talk, lingering until the mosquitoes signal that it’s time to head home.

“It’s my way of getting close to him and talk to him because I just miss him so much,” she said.

Rosey said the hardest part now is going home to an empty house, although she credits her wide circle of friends for helping to keep her busy and for being a constant source of support.

Recently, her friend Paula Wedge encouraged her to try crossfit training, and Sandi Macari, who she said was like a sister to Billy, took a bunch of his favorite t-shirts and made a memory blanket out of them — a “real tearjerker,” according to Rosey.

“It’s just beautiful,” she said of the blanket, which has gotten rave reviews on her Facebook page. “Some of his favorite shirts are all sewn into a quilt that I’m going to have forever.”

Rosey said that gestures like the blanket, or the upcoming CHS football scrimmage that will be played in Billy’s honor, are comforting reminders of how much he meant to his friends, family, and community.

Sandi Macari made this memory blanket out of Billy's old t-shirts.

Sandi Macari made this memory blanket out of Billy’s old t-shirts.

“I just so much want to keep him alive,” she said. “And I know he won’t be forgotten because everyone is still so much a part of Billy.”

As for the seemingly never-ending stream of ice-bucket videos that she comes across on her Facebook page, Rosey’s message is clear: Keep the ice water flowing and the donations coming.

“I’m trying to comment on every single one of them,” she said, “although I make sure to comment if they mention Billy in their video.”

Rosey said her ultimate hope is that the challenge sparks a lasting commitment to ALS research and eventually leads to a cure.

In the meantime, she will continue to lean on her family and friends and continue to talk about Billy any chance that she gets.

“It’s hard,” said Rosey, reflecting on the grieving process, “but I know that what I’m going through is normal, and I know that eventually it will get better.”

For more information about ALS or to donate to the ALS Association, go to www.alsa.org. Additional donation options are available at friendsofbillycravens.com and petefrates.com.

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