Thad Tousana's second-to-none smile is the first thing people remember about the third-generation Batavia native.
"When he walked into a room it just lit up," said Karl Maves, Tousana's co-captain on the 1985-86 Batavia basketball team and close friend since Louise White Elementary School. "Thaddeus was so full of life. No matter what was happening or going on in his world he always took time throughout the day to reach out, to ask what's going on with you. He was always giving of himself and he always did it with a smile on his face."
Thad Tousana and Aliya, his wife of 26 years, always gave back to the communities they lived in through their church group, whether it was the Logan Street Baptist Church in Batavia, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near their adopted hometown of Atlanta or in Abu Dhabi, where the couple moved last summer to travel and teach English through an arrangement with the United Arab Emirates government.
A Type 1 diabetic since he was 21, Thad developed complications while in the UAE and fell into a coma on Jan. 5. He passed away peacefully on Jan. 25. The father of five grown children was 49.
A celebration of the life of Thaddeus Buckner Tousana will take place Saturday at noon at Logan Street Baptist Church, 908 N. River St. in Batavia, preceded by visitation at 10 a.m.
Gatherers will remember a man who spent a lifetime giving of himself.
He always found ways to help
Batavia basketball great Corey Williams was a distant cousin of Tousana "but he was more like a brother to me," Williams said Tuesday from Tucson, Ariz., where he works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN and as an insurance broker.
Williams, who along with Lamarr Justice led Batavia to a Class AA quarterfinal in Champaign in 1991, grew up a few houses down from Tousana. Every summer Thad took Williams to the best pickup games in the area to make him a better player.
"Thad always found ways to help kids and be around them to mentor," Williams said. "Looking back at it, that's what he did for me. He's just a real giving person, a kind person. And great to be around. No matter what you were doing when he came around -- whether it was watching a game, playing cards, family picnics, whatever -- when Thad came around it got better. Everything just got better."
Williams is among scores of Batavia players who benefited from Tousana's selfless nature. Thad took over the budding Batavia youth basketball program from another former Bulldog, Ralph Ledbetter, when he was 19, two years before he met Glen Ellyn native Aliyah at the Wheaton Christian Center Youth Group.
The park district program took off due to Tousana's combination of basketball acumen and outgoing personality. In the nine years he directed it along with former St. Charles High School player Tim Krahnenbuhl, the youth program expanded from a lone Saturday morning instructional session of 12-14 kids to house leagues with four to six teams in three age groups for boys and another for girls.
"We just had so much fun," said Krahnenbuhl, now the principal of White Eagle Elementary in Naperville. "It was coach Thad and coach Tim. We'd just greet the kids with enthusiasm. Our goal was that every child who came out to play basketball would enjoy it, would have a great time, that they would love it, make connections, get better and improve."
Tousana continued to work with kids through his playing days at College of DuPage and Aurora University and always helped with Batavia High School's summer basketball camp. Even after the family moved to Atlanta in 1994, Thad returned to Batavia every Christmas and every summer and made a point of stopping by the gym to see if he could lend a hand to his high school coach, Jim Roberts.
"Anytime he was in town you could find him at the gym helping kids," Roberts said. "He was a guy who was always positive and upbeat."
The family returned to Batavia for a six-year stretch when Aliya went for her second Master's Degree and Thad returned to Aurora University to complete his Bachelor's in Education. He fulfilled his dream to become a teacher and continued to volunteer with youth sports while working as a teacher at H.C. Storm and Hoover-Wood Elementary Schools.
A big-hearted man
Tousana was there to help six years ago when Jim Nazos succeeded the retiring Roberts. Nazos said Tousana assisted with some logistical aspects.
"What a big-hearted man he was," Nazos said. "My first year he was great and helped me with some things off the floor. In the summers all the alumni play open gyms. We call it Night Shift. He was always around and always had a smile on his face. He was proud of this town and proud of Batavia basketball."
Upon learning last week of Thad's passing, a Batavia mother whose children Tousana coached 30 years ago wrote to Aliya to thank Thad for his dedication to Batavia youth basketball. The letter writer said her children learned "their basketball skills and love of the game" from him.
"He was unselfish when it came to helping kids," said Justice, a Notre Dame graduate who resides in Montgomery and works as a solutions architect for Amazon Business. "He took me under his wing just like he did so many kids coming into the Batavia basketball program. It wasn't because coach (Roberts) asked him to. It was because of his love of basketball and the community of Batavia. He just wanted to see us succeed and reach our maximum potential. You don't see that today. He did whatever he could to make us better basketball players out of the kindness of his own heart and generosity."
Tousana's giving nature was not limited to the athletic arena, according to Daniel "Pedro" Pedreyra of the Illinois State Patrol. He moved to Batavia from Peoria at Christmastime in 2007 to take his dream job as a state trooper. He knew no one in his new neighborhood and was lonely and sad to be away from his family in Peoria.
Things started to look up. First, he met the neighboring Holly family. Then came Thad, who waved from across the street and came striding over to say hello. The two enjoyed a long conversation and struck an immediate friendship. Pedreyra said his sadness and loneliness waned. He began to feel welcome.
"Thad taught me that we all can change someone's life and outlook right away by just showing them kindness and friendship," Pedreyra said. "Even to strangers. I carry that forward every day in my life, whether it is as a state trooper or whether I'm at the grocery store on a day off. He just cared about everyone. What a different world it would be if we all lived by his example."
Tousana was almost too nice when he played high school basketball for the Bulldogs. Roberts, who had recently been elevated from assistant to head coach, looked to season Tousana and Maves prior to their senior season by having them face the best competition around. He took the duo to the Prisco Center at McCullough Park in Aurora, where a who's who of area basketball talent gathered for daily pickup games.
It was a men's game of the highest order populated by local legends. On a given day the lineup might feature former West Aurora star Kenny Battle, who at the time was still at Northern Illinois before transferring to Illinois; West Aurora star Randy Norman, who lettered four years at NIU; David Lee, a teammate of Battle and Norman who started at guard for West Aurora teams that went 56-5 in 1982-83 and 1983-84. All three are members of the West Aurora Hall of Fame.
There were East Aurora stars, too. Regulars included the late Jay Taylor, who graduated as the all-time leading scorer in Eastern Illinois history, and Rodney Davis, who was later selected to NIU's All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
"We had a pretty unique group of guys that would gather there," Battle said. "(Roberts) told me he was going to bring some of his guys in there to get them toughened up. The first time they came in (Tousana) was a little shellshocked and scared. He didn't know what to expect. But over the course of time he played better and he learned to trash talk because that's went on there. You had to be willing to hold your own and back it up."
"That was an eye-opening experience, let me tell you," Maves said.
The seasoning worked. In fact, Roberts said recently he never coached a player who improved more from his junior year to his senior year than Tousana. More importantly, his first co-captains gave the young coach a launching point.
"Those guys believed in a young untested coach," said Roberts, who was inducted to the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2011. "I always refer to them as the cornerstones of Batavia basketball. The guys who came after were good players but these guys always gave back."
Tousana will be remembered in Batavia for his work with two generations of youth players but his true legacy lies in his children: Michael, 27, Taylor, 25, Courtney, 21, Ashley, 19, and Jessica, 17.
Aliyah Tousana expressed her thanks this week to the many who have sent condolences to the family. Through her husband's obituary she asked those who knew him to honor him by following his example.
"When asked by many 'What can we do to help your family?' I say live on purpose," she said. "Show love to each other, smile often and mentor a young person like he did. I ask that we reflect on the positive impact that he personally had on all of us and pay it forward."