DANVILLE — His brilliant smile, his contagious laugh, his unwavering confidence — Jelani Day’s impact on the lives of those around him is unfading.
“He lit up a room when he walked into it and he’d take control of that room,” Jackson Mallady, Day’s childhood friend, told The Pantagraph last week.
That light is the lasting memory for Day’s former teachers as well, like Jacob Bretz, who described the 25-year-old’s death “like snuffing out a candle. He was a bright light and then he’s just gone.”
Day’s disappearance from the Bloomington-Normal area in late August sparked national attention across news outlets and social media. Law enforcement agencies are investigating his death after the LaSalle County coroner identified a body pulled from the Illinois River near Peru as the Illinois State University graduate student.
He was reported missing Aug. 25 after his family had not heard from him in two days. His body was found Sept. 4 and identified Sept. 23; a cause of death is pending further investigation and toxicology testing, police have said.
Memorial services have been held across Central Illinois in Normal, Peru, Day's hometown of Danville and at Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, Alabama.
He is survived by his parents, Seve and Carmen Bolden Day; brothers D'Andre and Seve Day; sisters Dacara Bolden and Zena Day; grandmother, Gloria Bolden; aunt, Terri Davis; and uncle, Gary Bolden.
During his high school career, Day was a top runner on the Danville High School track team. He was also active in several school organizations, including the Educational Talent Search program through TRiO.
After graduating in 2014, he earned his bachelor's degree in communicative sciences and disorders at AAMU. There he was a member of the Nu Epsilon Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., 100 Black Men of Greater Huntsville, Collegiate 100 and the House Arrest dance team.
He graduated from AAMU in 2018 and began pursuing a master's degree in speech language pathology at ISU this summer on his way to fulfilling his dream of becoming a doctor.
Pantagraph journalists spent last week in Danville speaking to those who knew Day, and they described him as big-hearted, hard-working and on a path to success.
In a high school of roughly 1,300 students, Day stood out among his peers. He stepped into leadership with ease but backed up his social skills with hard work and determination.
"He was a strong person and knew how to carry himself well," said Johnny Leverenz, a former teammate of Day's from Danville High School. "A lot of people looked up to him. At meets themselves, he was always cheering on our teammates. We had a tight bond for a high school team, for sure. He always had our backs."
Leverenz recalled a failed prank they attempted near the end of senior year. It was decided, he said, that all seniors would sneak in and jump into the high school's swimming pool during school hours. Some seniors, like Mallady, who wore board shorts all day, came prepared, but others stood around, hesitant and not ready to get wet.
But on the sidelines, there was Day, cheering on his fellow classmates to jump in.
“Jelani did lead a charge in the pool area and then I went off one of the diving boards and the other guy got off the other diving board. Then we got busted,” Mallady said.
Day convinced track teammate Denzel Smith to jump in, but stayed dry himself. Smith and Mallady ended up as the only seniors walking back to class with towels that day.
In the classroom, his “squirrelly” underclassman ways matured into eloquence by his junior and senior year, his teachers said.
“He was never a bad kid, never disrespectful, always positive, but he would push and push and push and push and just, when you were ready to throw him out the window or something, he’d give you that smile and you just want to give him a big ol’ hug,” said Andrea VanLeer, who was Day’s math teacher in his youngest high school days. “It was just his personality.”
By the time Bretz had Day in his U.S. History class junior year, the teenager was a confident leader who could command the room and approach difficult conversations with grace.
“I remember him being supremely confident and in some ways being maybe a little jealous myself, like I wish I had that much self-confidence,” said Bretz, now assistant principal at DHS, noting Day worked hard to succeed in his schoolwork.
Mallady, who knew Day from age 5, said even as kindergartners, he could see “this guy has got potential.”
“I always said he was definitely the best of us, which held true up until the day he died,” he said of his friend.
Day's smile and laughter echo loudest in the memories of former coaches, teachers and classmates.
Mallady said by senior year, when he and his classmates were more comfortable joking with their teachers, they still maintained control. But “if you could get Jelani to laugh — he has the most contagious laugh — if that came out, there was no chance that the teacher was going to rein in control, I mean we’re just rolling on the floor laughing at that point. If Jelani is cracking up at it, it’s over.”
VanLeer said even though it’s been nearly 10 years since she had him in class, “The fact that that is what sticks out in our mind even after all these years just shows what a positive person he was, even at a young age.”
Ricky Hoskins, a longtime family friend who works at DHS, said, "It's rare to find someone like Jelani," whom he saw as “always just full of life, always had a smile on his face and he stayed active.”
In his community, Day spent much of his time with his church family at Saints Synagogue Church of God in Christ and spent his summers working at the local YMCA.
“He was always one that got involved,” Hoskins said. “He didn’t wait until somebody asked him to get involved — he stayed involved. He was a leader and not a follower.”
Outside of class, Day was a top sprinter on the DHS track team. Head Coach Chris Dryer, who was an assistant coach when Day was still in school, remembers coaching Day and his four siblings all through high school.
The tight-knit track team was like a family, on and off the track. While taking the charge in many other school activities, Dryer said he remembers Day as a quiet leader on the track.
"He was leading maybe not so much vocally, but because of his work ethic and how he was working and how he pushed, people could see that he was a leader," Dryer said.
He was the hardest worker on the team, always pushing himself to be the best because "that was just the way he was," said Dryer.
Mitchell Parker, a former teammate and friend of Day's older brother, Seve, said Day always knew when to have fun with the team and when to get down to business.
“You’re so used to seeing him joke and laugh and share that smile, but seeing him during practices and during a meet, it was just laser focused and wanting to come out on top," he said.
'A life force'
The AAMU speech pathology program is a small one, a field dominated by mostly women. Each student is special, but for professors Diana Blakeney-Billings and Esther Phillips-Embden, Day was a "life force in the classroom."
"Jelani was intuitive, quick-witted," said Phillips-Embden, clinical education director for the communicative sciences and disorders program at the university. "You knew when he was in the room. He was a joy to teach and to experience."
Just as he did in high school, Day worked hard in the classroom. During discussions he was always talking with his peers, pushing them to think and talk about issues. He also helped his fellow students on more than one occasion, asking difficult questions and talking with professors.
"He was always the leader in the classroom," Blakeney-Billings said. "I had so many students tell me that he was their voice in class."
On one assignment, Blakeney-Billings recalled how impressed students were by Day's presentation, not only for how well it was put together, but for how seriously he took his assignment. He even showed up in a three-piece suit, she said.
"He had the character of a natural teacher, wanting to engage with other people," Phillips-Embden said.
It was Day's dream to become a speech pathology doctor, said Blakeney-Billings, who learned that he was initially inspired by a family friend who had a speech impediment.
So, when Day received his white coat for his pinning ceremony, Phillips-Embden recalled he was so excited he "wore it all the way to his dorm."
On Thursday evening, the university held a memorial service and balloon release honoring Day. Hundreds of students attended.
Both Blakeney-Billings and Phillips-Embden said hearing of Day's death was surreal. Being mothers themselves, they could imagine what his family is going through.
"There were several nights where it was hard for me to go to sleep," Phillips-Embden said. "It was hard for me to understand."
Many students on campus are distraught, Blakeney-Billings said. She said she remembers a phone call in which a student who was a close friend of Day's learned of his death.
"You could just feel the pain and anguish in that child's voice," Blakeney-Billings said. "I don't think I'll ever forget that."
Day graduated from AAMU in 2018. This summer he began his master's program at Illinois State University in communication sciences and disorders. On Thursday, the university held a memorial and vigil honoring Day.
Amanda Regez, who is a professor in the communications sciences and disorders department, during the vigil said, "Jelani was a strong, intelligent man who was making an impact in his community and our program. This meant everything to him."
The news of Day's disappearance and later confirmation of his death sent shockwaves through the communities who knew him best. A student on his way to becoming a doctor, someone who had so much life ahead of him, was heartbreaking, they said.
“He was a light for a lot of people," said Parker. "He came from a great family and to have that happen to somebody so special, it’s honestly truly heartbreaking. It’s something that you would not expect to happen to him of all people.”
VanLeer said her heart aches for Day’s family.
“It’s devastating. I was just crushed,” she said. “It’s devastating when anything happens, but the fact that he was on the path to be what he wanted to be and he would have probably been really good at it is even harder to accept.”
Having known Day since before he was born, Hoskins said this death broke his heart.
“When he came missing, of course we were all praying that he would be found and brought home to his family,” he said. “I sat in my office when I heard about it and cried because he was like one of my own.”
Mallady said he was frustrated by the investigation into Day’s disappearance before he began processing the “severe sadness” that followed.
“There was no clear message of what we needed to be doing or how we could help,” he said, adding that he and other former classmates tried to organize search parties. “That was just frustrating, to be honest. I mean, that was frustrating for us; I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be for the family itself.”
Mallady said they felt defeated by the process and angry seeing other missing person cases gain more attention at the national level.
Eventually, Day's case reached millions of people online and gained national news coverage. Several celebrities helped uplift the case, and some people began bringing issues of how missing person cases are handled in the media.
“I truly think Jelani’s case helped open a door for people of color," said Parker. "You don’t have to be a white female in this country to get recognition, and with Jelani’s case, he knew so many people and was so beloved, it sparked that fuse to shine a light on every single case."
But, more than anything, friends, teachers, coaches and former teammates are hurting with Day's family. Not only those who knew him, but the entire Danville community has been touched by his death, Hoskins said.
"It's a hurtful situation throughout the community," he said. "Everybody I talk to, of course nobody wants to see this happen to anybody’s child, and they say it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s exactly what happened with them. It took a lot of people to raise him also, that gave a helping hand with his parents also."
Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.
“He didn’t wait until somebody asked him to get involved — he stayed involved. He was a leader and not a follower.”
— Ricky Hoskins, a family friend of Jelani Day