By Sherrie Norris
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and no better time to remind local residents of one of the area’s strongest advocates and role models for victims of sexual assault.
While the late Leigh Cooper Wallace’s death, years after he own horrific assault, was unrelated and totally unexpected, the legacy she left behind will live on for a long time to come — just as it should.
Anyone who has been around Boone for the last 30 years, at least, doesn’t need to be reminded of Wallace, whose influence was far-reaching. But, there may be those who missed knowing the incredible woman for who she really was.
With that in mind, it was former Dean of Students at Appalachian State University, Barbara Daye, who suggested to Wallace’s father, Claude Cooper, that he and his wife, Louise, consider initiating a scholarship in memory of their daughter.
Daye said she first met Leigh and her family after her assault. “What a horrible ordeal that was for her. But, I saw strength in her and I saw strength in her family. I saw how she wanted to reach out to other people, to remind them that she was not a victim, and she didn’t want anyone else to be a victim.”
Daye continued, “Some people might not know this, but Leigh’s attacker, Daniel Lee, told her (after he had already killed ASU student Jeni Gray), that he was ‘going over there (to the university) to get more girls.’ In my opinion, Leigh Wallace stopped a serial killer. That’s a powerful thing right there.”
After Wallace’s death, Daye said she began to realize just how much the young woman had done for the community, for Watauga High School and for the university. “I just felt that something was missing. I began to talk to her family about the possibility of a scholarship, and they were all in.”
Daye continued, “Her mother, Louise, told me that one thing Leigh always wanted was to be remembered. And yes, we all agree — she must be remembered.”
Wallace’s family was, indeed, excited about such an initiative, Cooper shared with High Country Press earlier this week.” Louise and I began talking about it, and now, with Barbara’s help and that of Katie Pate, Assistant Athletic Director for Development (at App State), we are about to see it come to fruition.”
In Leigh’s “all too short lifetime,” her father agreed with Daye, that she did, in fact, have a major influence on the university, on Watauga High School, and on Watauga County, in general.
“There is no doubt in my mind that, if Leigh were alive today, she would be one of App State’s most ardent supporters,” Cooper said.
He continued, “As a student at Appalachian State, she survived a terrible ordeal at the hands of a rapist and would-be serial killer. She managed to escape, to assist local authorities in locating this killer, and her riveting testimony at trial insured that he would never walk the streets of Boone again.”
Leigh finished her education, earning her degree and becoming one of the greatest track and cross-country athletes in App State history. She was subsequently inducted into the Appalachian State University Athletic Hall of Fame.
“Leigh went on to become a Hall of Fame coach at Watauga High, as she coached cross-country and track for 10 years, and was the first girl’s lacrosse coach at Watauga. Leigh was also a member of the Watauga County Sports Hall of Fame.”
Her sudden death, from MRSA pneumonia in December 2012, left the area stunned that one so healthy, so vibrant and strong, could be taken so quickly.
The impact she had on the High Country was evidenced by the almost 3,000 people who attended her visitation and memorial service.
To say that she was an advocate and role model for victims of violence and sexual assault is an understatement, but it was true. She was that — and so much more.
How You Can Help Make a Difference
The endowment in memory of Leigh Cooper Wallace will provide an annual scholarship in the amount of $1,000 to a member of Appalachian State University’s Track and Field team, with preference to a student majoring in education. The scholarship is scheduled to begin with the 2024-2025 academic year.
“At this time, we are soliciting pledges (of funds) to create the endowment,” said Claude Cooper. “ In order to activate the endowment, we must reach a goal of $25,000 by December 31 of this year.”
Once the goal has been met, information will be sent to donors on how to submit funds, Copper added.
Pledges toward the scholarship should be sent to Claude Cooper by email at [email protected] or mailed to 113 Knollwood Drive, Clemson, SC 29631.
While continuing to honor the memory of their daughter, who we all agree was taken too soon, the message from her parents is simple, yet profound: “Our objective with this endowment is to keep her legacy alive.”
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