updated 09/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/21/1998 AT 01:00 AM EDT
On Jan. 16, 1997, the second of her four children—Corie, 17, a high school senior with a graduation cap-and-gown order tucked in her pocket—was killed when the city bus she rode home from school was sprayed with bullets. Thomas-Davis, 44, says her pain "was like somebody has taken your heart and grabbed it and yanked it out."
But Corie's life—thanks to her mother's strength and a sad coincidence—has not gone uncommemorated. The day Corie was shot, Thomas-Davis got a call from Bill Cosby, whose son Ennis had been murdered that same day. "He wanted to let me know that there was someone else going through the same thing," she says. He also offered financial help, which the South Central L.A. resident, an elementary school maintenance supervisor, declined.
Eleven days later, though, she accepted another offer: At Cosby's suggestion, Oprah Winfrey asked Thomas-Davis to appear on her show with some of Ennis's friends to talk about the tragedies. Thomas-Davis also discussed the Corie Williams Scholarship Fund, which she had started days after Corie's death. The charity has taken in about $20,000, of which $9,150 has gone to 25 students at two schools Corie attended: King/Drew Magnet and Centennial High School in Compton, to which the aspiring medical technician transferred for its Junior ROTC program. The grants, which range from $100 to $2,000, provide "a little help to buy some books or pay tuition," says Thomas-Davis. All applicants, who must have at least a 2.5 GPA, have received money. "If we can help kids to think about their education," says Thomas-Davis, "then they can't be out there running the streets, killing somebody else's child."
Thomas-Davis knows firsthand the obstacles inner-city teens face. Born in Arkansas and reared in L.A.'s South Central as the oldest of 11 children, she "turned her life around in the most amazing way," says Marsue MacNicol, one of five volunteers on the scholarship committee (and wife of Ally McBeal's Peter MacNicol). After splitting with husband Gary Williams, Thomas-Davis, who had dropped out of school at 18 when she became pregnant, raised daughters Corie and Shameka, now 24, while working nights as a custodian and returning to the classroom for a high school diploma.
The gregarious but sensitive Corie adored her mother, who met retired custodian Willie Davis in 1985 (they have two children: Barbara Jean, 10, and Brian, 8). "Mom, I'll be with you until I'm 30," Corie would say between wet-lipped kisses. She "didn't think anybody could do anything-wrong," says Thomas-Davis, "and that made me more protective."
But there is no protection against random bullets. The one that struck Corie, police say, was one of several allegedly fired by a member of a local Crips gang at rival Bloods on the bus. "Everything that a teenage girl should experience, she didn't get a chance to do," says Thomas-Davis, whose goal now is to help give her daughter's classmates that chance.
In June, addressing 65 graduating seniors at King/Drew Magnet, Thomas-Davis read the names of 13 beaming scholarship recipients. Then, wiping away tears, she gave a short speech: "Don't forget to embrace and love your family, because you don't know how much time you have with them," she told the audience. After the ceremony, as scholarship winners gathered to thank her, one, Juan Gay-tan, licked his lips before giving Thomas-Davis a kiss—evoking the one memory that "hurts the most," she says. "I hated those wet kisses. What I wouldn't do for one now."
Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles