Most remember Jane Elizabeth McCauley McCartha as a coach, teacher, mentor, mother, friend and athlete. Her dedication to her students and team at West McDowell Junior High (WMJH), where she served as athletic director, showed in her multiple undefeated basketball seasons and the respect she earned from her players and colleagues.
Her life and career were cut short at a young 44 years old on Sept. 12, 1995 when she lost her battle with breast cancer, leaving behind a husband and two young sons. Her oldest, Zack McCartha, has honored his mother by establishing the Jane McCartha Scholarship that goes to one young female athlete at McDowell High School who demonstrates excellent leadership, community involvement and work ethic throughout their career. Donations for the scholarship are accepted through McDowell United Fund.
“I just can’t convey enough how tough of a person she was, but at the same time just how much she loved her family, players and students. She was just a phenomenal person with a tremendous heart,” said Zack.
McCartha began her teaching and coaching career in McDowell County in 1974, where she later became athletic director and spent 21 years of her life. She coached basketball, softball and taught physical education. Her teams won numerous conference championships during her tenure, and she was prolific in starting the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at WMJH.
“The cause was very near to her heart,” said Zack.
In an article written by former McDowell News reporter Ragan Robinson, McCartha was remembered shortly after her death by those she impacted.
“She made me a better basketball player; she made me a better person,” said Mandy Edwards in the 1995 article. “She instilled all her values in me like respecting others and going out of your way to help people.”
She was diagnosed with breast cancer around 1985, and battled the disease most of the time her sons knew her.
“It went into remissions for a period of time and then returned,” he said. “It had returned and spread through various other places in her body. It’s hard to remember the initial diagnosis, but it was very heart wrenching.”
During her treatments, she received numerous amounts of chemotherapy, radiation and even a bone marrow transplant. Zack said during his mother’s illness, his father C.E. was the rock of the family.
“He was extremely strong and held things together even when mom was extremely sick. Derek was really young and Dad did his best to keep the routine and everything as normal as possible,” said Zack. “I was always a momma’s boy so it was very tough on me, however, when you are a child, you never really imagine that one of your parents will die. You understand that they are sick, but you are almost in denial that it’s as bad as they are saying.”
He still remembers the day she passed, which still hurts to talk about even as a grown man with his own family now.
“She had felt bad and went to sleep early. There was a football game on that she would have been interested in so I stepped in there to tell her the score,” Zack said he recalls. “She was asleep. I went over and kissed her goodnight. That was the last time that I would see my mom.”
Zack said he remembers a lot about his mom—her laugh, her smile and her fierce competitiveness.
“I remember her positive attitude and the amount of fight she displayed throughout her battle with cancer. She never let it get her down,” he said. “But most of all I remember the way she cared about people. She just genuinely cared so much. She loved and adored West McDowell Junior High. She really did ‘bleed blue’.”
The competitiveness of sports from Jane rubbed off on her two sons, and even her grandchildren. Zack is the girls head basketball coach and assistant football coach at Mitchell High School, and his daughter Clara is becoming a standout player in a variety of sports. Zack’s brother Derek volunteers as a coach for many of the activities his daughter is involved in.
“I talk to my children a lot about her. Clara Jane is my oldest and she is named after my mom. I just try my best to bring up the good times and try to let them know that their grandmother was an amazing person. We do talk about the basketball part quite a bit as you would imagine,” said Zack.
His daughter has a tribute article written by The McDowell News hanging in her bedroom, and they often visit her gravesite as a family to decorate it and keep her spirit alive as much as they can.
“I always remember the way she loved her players and students. They all meant so much to her. She had a way of pushing them to be better, but they still loved and respected her. She would often talk about them and what they did good,” Zack said.
Retired coach Phyllis Davis talked about Jane in the 1998 article on how McCartha influenced her to play sports, coach and become a teacher with McDowell County Schools. After 37 years, Davis retired in 2014 with over 200 wins and a 76-game winning streak, among other accolades.
“If it hadn’t been for her, I would have never played ball,” Davis said in 1998. “She motivated me. And she taught me a great deal about coaching and life in general. Her great leadership and the impact she had on the kids was evident at her funeral. A lot of them were deeply hurt. I don’t think you could find anyone who had a bad word to say about Jane.”
Davis continued to say in the article that even when Jane was not feeling her best, she left her troubles at the door and devoted her time to the students. She worked almost up until the time of her death, taking a leave of absence on Aug. 9, 1995. .
To make a donation to the Jane McCartha Scholarship Fund, visit www.mcdowellunitedfund.org.