PEMBROKE – Sylvia Pate will always remember the first time she went to Walmart with Illya Chavis Lindsey.
“I didn’t think we would ever get out of that place,” Pate said with a laugh. “Illya stopped and talked to everybody.”
“She had a gazillion friends,” Pate said.
Lindsey’s bubbly personality carried over in her job as a program developer with The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
“That’s the type of personality that you need when you are dealing with the public and Illya had it,” Pate said. “She was a hard worker, outgoing and had excellent communication skills.”
The Walmart trip, fishing expeditions and joyriding on her Harley, were among countless memories Pate shared about her dear friend who passed away on May 29.
She was 49.
Lindsey worked for the university for 12 years. She served on Staff Council. The Pembroke native was also a UNCP alum, earning a business management degree in 1999.
“She was vivacious,” said Pate, former director of the Regional Center for Economic, Community and Professional Development, known today as the Office for Regional Initiatives. “She had a vibrant personality and always greeted you with a genuine smile.”
Lindsey was among the first staff hired at the Regional Center shortly after it opened its doors in 2000. She coordinated the summer youth camps and continuing education programs. She also planned and helped organize workshops, the annual Women’s Conference and Business Visions Banquet.
“She was good at pulling everyone together as a team when it was time to put on these events and summer camps,” Pate said. “She was very supportive of activites on campus. She really enjoyed decorating the office during homecoming.”
“She loved the university.”
Querida Jones developed a close working relationship with Lindsey. They grew even closer as friends outside of work. Jones is the executive assistant for Engaged Outreach.
“She was very organized and trustworthy,” Jones said. “During the summer camps, if a teacher didn’t show up, Illya would step in and take over. She was a go-getter.”
Jones added, “Illya was a likeable person. She was genuine and real. There was nothing fake about her. She treated everybody alike.”
Her ‘gazillions’ of friends would also agree that Lindsey was a fighter.
Lindsey endured personal hardships, including the death of her newborn son, Talon in 2005. Four years later, she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. Doctors gave her six months to live.
However, Lindsey refused to let her illness slow her down. She completed 37 rounds of radiation. In 2011, she learned that the cancer had spread to her spine. Back surgery left her paralyzed from her chest down. She was confined to an electric wheelchair.
“Illya was not going to let anything get her down,” Jones said.
Lindsey’s battle with cancer and resilience inspired others, Jones said. She encouraged other cancer survivors and became heavily involved with Relay for Life events at UNCP and in Robeson County.
Pate remembers the day the staff learned of Lindsey’s diagnosis.
“It was like we were more devastated than she was,” Pate said. “When I was visiting her in the hospital, she would still be smiling even though she was in immense pain.”
“Throughout it all, she remained miraculously positive,” Pate said. “She was definitely an inspiration to lots of people.”
Beth Wilkerson also worked with Lindsey for many years. Wilkerson serves as the assistant regional director of the Small Business and Technology Development Center at UNCP.
“Illya was one of a kind,” Wilkerson said. “A free spirit. She did not meet a stranger. She was always welcoming and always had a smile on her face. She was never one to complain. She was a warm, caring … wonderful person.”
Outside of her job, Lindsey was a successful entrepreneur. She was known across the region for “Illya’s Concession,” a popular food truck and fixture at local festivals, county fairs and especially Lumbee Homecoming for nearly 20 years.
Illya’s Concession was famous for its funnel cakes, turkey legs and blooming onions. Lindsey was also an avid motorcyclist. Before she died, Lindsey asked that her casket be paraded through Pembroke and by UNCP prior to her funeral service.
On Thursday, her husband, Boyd, and about 50 bikers honored her request as the roar of motors could be heard revving through town. Several people lined the streets to pay tribute after learning about the ride through social media.
In addition to her husband of 17 years, Lindey leaves behind six children, Tristian, Jacoby, Landon, Amy, Shicoya and Erica; and her parents, Grover and Bobby Jean Lowry Chavis.
“It goes without saying that Illya will definitely be missed,” Pate said. “There is no way to replace someone like her. That’s a void that will never be filled.”
UNC Pembroke is a constituent institution of the University of North Carolina system. For more information, contact Jodi Phelps, executive director of University Communications and Marketing, via email, ([email protected]) or by phone (910.521.6863). Connect with UNC Pembroke on social media or online at uncp.edu to learn how the university is changing lives through education.