Just like so many opponents she encountered throughout her life, cancer was no match for Julie Ditty Qualls. It did not defeat her.
Upbeat, positive and sporting a steadfast smile, Ditty Qualls didn’t allow a 2015 breast cancer diagnosis to sway how she attacked life. The same applied when the cancer metastasized to Stage IV in 2019. Her full-force approach rarely wavered.
When Dr. Jack Ditty awoke Wednesday morning, a realization smacked him in the face like a tennis racket rocketing a ball 120 mph: “Julie’s not alive today. Yesterday, she was.”
Soon after, though, the outpouring of calls, texts, social media posts reassured him that his daughter’s legacy would never fade.
“(Tuesday) was the toughest day of my life,” he said. “I could not believe we were going to have to give up our daughter. ... (Wednesday) has been a very positive day.”
That’s because Julie Ditty Qualls was larger than life — instantaneously to anyone with whom she came in contact.
She died at age 42 in a Louisville hospital intensive care unit on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at 9:27 p.m.
‘Stole your heart’
When Josh and Atreyu Qualls sat across from Jack and Juanita Ditty during a special dinner in 2018, Josh popped the question before “popping the question.” He sought permission from his soulmate’s parents, expressing his intentions of proposing to Julie.
“Her mom was like, ‘What took you so long?’” Josh recalled with a laugh.
The two struck up a storybook type of love. The two were compatible on countless levels, sharing the same adoration for outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, snowboarding and mountain-biking. On their first date, Qualls showed off his mountain-biking skills, pushing ahead of Julie on a Barboursville Park trail — but he frequently peered over his shoulder to check on the new apple of his eye.
“She liked that I was looking back and checking on her; she said it showed the type of person I was,” Josh remembered.
The two eventually ventured to the Big Apple, where he put an engagement ring on her finger in front of a northern woods waterfall in New York City’s Central Park.
Atreyu, now 10, fell for Julie, too. Josh’s son officially became Julie’s son on March 23, 2021, after Julie adopted him.
“He looked up to her so much,” Josh Qualls said. “She ended up teaching him tennis and giving him lessons. She wanted to open the doors to him for a bright future.”
The bond between the three was undeniable.
Julie Ditty Qualls’ magnet had a strong pull and wide range. The same infectious smile that drew in Josh and Atreyu made everyone feel comfortable around her — especially her family.
She was the favorite aunt to 12 nieces and nephews. She was the ideal sister to two brothers and three sisters. She was a daughter who cherished her mom and dad — Josh and Julie bought a house next door to them. And she was an unrivaled friend.
“I speak for a lot of people when I talk about Julie,” Jack Ditty said. “From the time she was a little girl, she just stole your heart. She was just a kind person. She was just so nice. She loved doing things for people all the time.”
‘So selfless, so humble’
Josh Qualls agreed with his father in-law.
“She always put everyone else first; so selfless, so humble,” Josh said of his wife. “Even while battling Stage IV breast cancer, she found out someone needed something, she would pack her little bag full of snacks and waters, and go. She was always thinking of everyone.”
In the summer of 2019, the couple conducted a free tennis clinic at Ashland Tennis Center — where Ditty Qualls’ athletic ability shined brightest.
A total of 150 children signed up. That week, she found out she needed surgery to extract a lymph node. She never once thought of canceling, Josh said. Julie leaned on Josh, Jack and dozens of other volunteers to assist.
“After her surgery, she was right back on the tennis court with them,” Josh said. “That’s how much of a fighter she is. She never gave up on anything.”
Julie was active in Partners In Pride, her mother’s favorite charity, which helped kids in the Russell school system.
“She loved it,” Jack Ditty said. “She would not only go out and shop for them. She’d go beyond that. She’d end up taking kids for ice cream, things like that. ... She was above and beyond all the time.”
Although she traveled the world while playing tennis professionally from 2001-11, Julie always gravitated toward the northeastern pocket of Kentucky. She met thousands of people along the way, but married a local man and wanted a family here, near her Russell roots.
“She became a contributing member in our community,” Dr. Ditty said.
One of her final wishes to Josh is to continue to do just that by having him promise to sustain a junior team tennis league the duo started this past winter. As Josh described it, it’s basically Little League for tennis players.
They created the Julie Ditty Qualls Foundation.
“It is not going to be limited to tennis,” her father said. “It’s definitely a foundation which will be dedicated to improving our community. It’s about the kinds of things Julie promoted, like free tennis lessons, the development of new hiking trails, access to trails, as well as biking.”
Both her husband and dad noted Julie became an avid gardener over the last couple years as well.
“She would plant all these flowers all over the property, and made it just a beautiful place to live,” Dr. Ditty said.
Julie Ditty Qualls made live colorful during a dreary time clouded by COVID-19.
“She kept us sane during the pandemic, taking Brady and Anna on hikes, teaching them tennis, cooking dinner for all of us,” said sister Christy Hajjar, referring to her children — Brady and Anna are Julie’s nephew and niece. “... She loved my kids as if they were her own. ... I’m pretty sure my kids — and even my dog — like her better than me. And I don’t blame them, because she really was that awesome.”
“The world is a better place because of her,” Hajjar added.
Before adding the Qualls surname, Ditty was a woman on a tennis mission; a machine on the court.
Former Daily Independent sports editor and editor Mark Maynard said the following: “She is easily one of the greatest athletes to come out of this area. Maybe the greatest when you consider her accomplishments. Such a beautiful soul.”
When she was just 7, she approached Russell tennis coach Caroline Fannin about playing on the varsity team with her sisters Amy and Jenny. The rest was history.
Ditty Qualls captured three singles state titles, including one as an eighth-grader at Lexington Christian Academy and another pair of crowns at Russell in 1996-97. She ascended to All-American status three times at Vanderbilt, pacing the Commodores to the national team finals in 2001.
She claimed 38 USTA Pro Circuit championships, including 29 doubles titles. As a pro, she played in each of the Grand Slam tournaments — Wimbledon, Australian Open, U.S. Open and French Open. She defeated Venus Williams, too.
“I remember covering her when she was like 10 or less playing on the Russell tennis team,” Maynard said. “You knew then she was going to be unbelievable. Whatever sport she chose, she was going to be good. Just a natural athlete who didn’t move as much as she flowed on the tennis court. She had her father’s competitive drive and her mother’s kind heart.”
Jack Ditty collected clippings of newspapers over the years as Julie racked up accolade after accolade.
“(Sports writer) Rocky (Stanley) and Mark did such wonderful articles on Julie,” Dr. Ditty said. “They did an awesome job of telling others about her accomplishments.”
Legacy lives on
With COVID restrictions, only two people are typically permitted to be at a patient’s bedside.
That was not happening on Tuesday night as Julie’s organs began to fail.
“That ‘only two people’ became ‘only four people,’ and then, before you know it, it’s Atreyu and I, her parents, all her brothers and sisters ... we were all in there,” Josh Qualls said. “So they shut the curtain and just let us have our time. We were there until her last breath. She wasn’t in pain. She was comforted. She was right there with her family.”
So many of her relatives posted their sentiments on social media on Wednesday.
“I love you,” brother Kramer said. “Life will never be the same.”
“She was the best sister-in-law ever,” wrote Charlotte Ditty. “We had so many amazing adventures and I will cherish them all. Love you Julie.”
“I can’t fathom a world where she isn’t here,” posted sister Jenny Ditty Kang.
Said niece Anna Hajjar: “When I found out Julie was not going to be OK, I cried really hard. But there is a better life up in heaven. She will see our ancestors up there. She will always be remembered and always be in my heart.”
Close friend Annie Warnock Neal penned her thoughts.
“Yesterday, I lost a piece of me. She filled me, lifted me, supported me, held me and grounded me my entire life,” Neal said. “I was lucky to call her my best friend. As I told Julie, the friendship she, Carol Touma and I share is eternal and does not ever end. I love you Jules and you continue to live in everyone’s heart.”
“She was a fighter to the very end,” Josh Qualls said.
Qualls said he can be reached at (606) 331-0456 regarding the Julie Ditty Qualls Foundation.
Jack Ditty said a service to celebrate Julie’s life is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 5, from 1-5 p.m. at the Paramount Arts Center.
(606) 326-2664 |