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“You Are Stronger Than You Think”: Remembering Leigh Cooper Wallace

By Sherrie Norris

Leigh Cooper Wallace, pictured here with daughter, Haleigh was always on the run, instilling in her children at an early age that health and physical fitness was a way of life.  Photo submitted

Leigh Cooper Wallace was a young woman who will never be forgotten in the High Country. Her sudden death, from MRSA pneumonia at the age of 43, on December 17, 2012, left the area stunned that one so healthy, so vibrant and strong, could be taken so quickly. 

Her death left not only her family and closest friends in shock, but it swept a wave of deep sorrow throughout the entire area, especially Watauga High, Appalachian State University, and the local sports community, in general.

She was a daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend to many. She was a champion athlete, a Hall of Fame coach, a beloved teacher and mentor. Her energy and zest for life was evident in everything she did. 

To say that she was also 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. The impact she had on the High Country was evidenced by the almost 3,000 people who attended her visitation and memorial service at the Watauga High School gymnasium.

The list of her accomplishments and acknowledgments is lengthy; she was recognized while living, and after her death, the accolades continued.

 “As a student at Appalachian State, she survived a terrible ordeal at the hands of a rapist and would-be serial killer,” said her father, Claude Cooper. “She managed to escape, to assist local authorities in locating this killer, and her riveting testimony at trial ensured that he would never walk the streets of Boone again.”

It was the wish of her family, and especially her father, that Wallace’s life be remembered for what it was. 

After the assault, Leigh finished her education, earning her degree in exercise science and becoming one of the greatest track and cross-country athletes in the history of Appalachian State University. She was subsequently inducted into the App State Athletic Hall of Fame.

We began the project in the summer of 2012, after I had begun talking to her about writing a book. I felt that she had a powerful story to tell and I knew that she also wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives.

– Claude Cooper

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.

Claude Cooper eventually wrote a book about the life of his daughter. But, he said, it all began even before her death — and with her help.

“We began the project in the summer of 2012, after I had begun talking to her about writing a book,” he shared. “I felt that she had a powerful story to tell and I knew that she also wanted to make a difference in other people’s lives.”

Leigh Cooper Wallace was a winner either way, on and off the field. Photo submitted

But Leigh didn’t feel like she had time to commit to writing, her father recalled.

“After being featured in several magazine articles and in two television specials, and with overwhelming positive feedback, she finally decided to do the book, with my help,” Cooper stated. “She would narrate her story into a cassette each evening, and then bring me the tape to type into my computer. The plan was that once we had it all on the computer, we would start organizing and editing a script.”

When she died a short time later, Leigh had already shared much about her life through those cassettes, having dictated details of her childhood years, right up through her kidnapping, assault, and the following trial.

Finding Strong – The Life Story of Leigh Cooper Wallace 

The cover of the book, “Finding Strong,” written by Claude Cooper, with Leigh Cooper Wallace, shows a determined young woman doing what she did best. Photo submitted.

As the first of four children born to Claude and Louise Cooper, Leigh was always considered a determined individual; she adapted well to many life changes in her younger years, including frequent moves due to her father’s military career and his ascent up the ladder to U.S. Army Lt. Colonel. Leigh inherited discipline, strength, integrity, and many more traits from her parents. Both were athletic and hailed from rather large families. 

“Family was, and still is, the most important thing in our lives,” said Cooper. 

Leigh Martin Cooper was born at Coco Solo Hospital on August 12, 1969, while her father’s special forces unit was assigned to the Panama Canal Zone. “She was a beautiful baby at 9 lbs. 3 oz.; 16 months later, her sister, Julia Louise Cooper, was born.

Life was great in Panama for a young couple with two infant children. In the meantime, Claude received orders for his second duty in Vietnam; Louise and the girls went to stay with her family in South Carolina. Missing a year in the lives of his two daughters was troubling, he admitted. 

Soon thereafter, their moves began as a military family — Fort Benning, GA., Fort Bragg, NC.,  Altoona, PA. and back to Fort Bragg. And that was just the beginning. The subsequent arrivals of a third daughter, Holley, and their son, Graig, completed the Cooper family. 

At age 11, while in Puerto Rico, Leigh began to focus on swimming, pushing herself “as hard as I could go,” she said. In eighth grade, she began running with her dad, who did so competitively at that time. It was a high school cross-country coach who told Claude. “She may be a good swimmer, but with all due respect, sir, she’s a runner.”

Leigh realized it, too.

“Occasionally, I ran alone at night. I’m a night person, and in the evening hours, I get a lot done. .  . It was liberating for me to run (at night); no one could see me, and I ran faster at night. Living on an Army base, I felt secure and wasn’t concerned whether it was safe to run outside at night. One night I ran by a big bush and I remember thinking ‘What would I do, how would I react, if a man jumped from behind this bush to attack and rape me?’ At that age, I was old enough to know that rape happened to women. I knew it was a horrible thing, terrifying and awful. I remember thinking ‘I hope it never happens to me.’”

Looking back on my youth, I can see there was no way that I, or any of my siblings, could grow up and not be athletes. Everything we did revolved around athletic competition, either us kids competing, or mom and dad.

– Leigh Cooper Wallace

In the meantime, Cooper recognized his daughter’s “exceptional ability.”

In another of her tapes, Leigh said, “Looking back on my youth, I can see there was no way that I, or any of my siblings, could grow up and not be athletes. Everything we did revolved around athletic competition, either us kids competing, or mom and dad.”

After having this realization, she really kicked into high gear running, training, competing  — and winning. 

The 2013 Walk for Awareness, where students, faculty, and other university officials participated in a silent walk to remeber victims of violence. Photo by Ken Ketchie.
Walk For Awareness; A Significant Impact

In 1989, after the kidnapping of two young women associated with Appalachian State University, one of whom was murdered, campus leaders came together to start the annual "Walk for Awareness" on the first Tuesday of each September.

It was initially held in memory of Jeni Gray and to honor survivors like Leigh Cooper-Wallace, who took an active part in the walk and was keynote speaker for its first 10 years. 

“Leigh had a huge impact in the success of this walk for a number of years,” said Barbara Daye, now retired Dean of Students at ASU, who originally conceptualized the Walk for Awareness with the support of Chancellor John Thomas, several of her colleagues, and the students of App State.

“It was important to me that we remembered Jeni and that we remembered how we felt when she disappeared. It was also important that we never forgot the sacrifices made by Leigh Cooper [Wallace] and the fact that had she not survived, we would never have known the full story and seen justice prevail.”

Daye participated in the walk for many years, even after her retirement in 2002, and was sad when it ultimately ended in recent years.

“I thought it was a positive way to begin a school year, a way for us to come together as a community. It was also a way for the students to learn about available services and resources. It was also important to hear people, like Leigh, speak about what had happened with them and most importantly, how they overcame the notion of ‘I'm no longer a victim, I'm now a survivor."  

That message, Daye added. “brought hope to people, young women and young men alike. After Leigh spoke each year, she would be surrounded by a large group of people who just flocked to her. She was just that way. She was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life.”

“The community and campus support was great,” Daye recalled. “The walk through town, to the Jones House, with candles at first, and then later, flashlights provided by the parents’ association, sent a strong message. When we lifted those candles together, the light shone brighter and it was such a comforting feeling. I often said ‘No amount of darkness can snuff out the light of one small candle.’"

The event eventually changed “into something totally different,” Daye described. “And then it just disappeared, maybe because of Covid.”

After the trial, Daye and prosecutor Tom Rusher nominated Leigh for NC Woman of the Year. “She was one of the finalists. I took her to Raleigh, where she told her story. Everyone was crying. She influenced people everywhere she went. One day, I told Leigh that she was my hero. That’s just one of many things I learned from her — to let people know if they have made a difference in your life.”

Leigh had a high tolerance for pain, and while that tolerance helped her in her training, it also spelled trouble for her body. At one point she damaged her knee so badly that she had to have surgery. Leigh also struggled with body image issues, her upper body having been made wider and stronger from swimming. After surgery, she decided to work on that “image.” Eating very little and losing weight, she developed an obsession with food. She lost weight and she gained weight, the latter affecting her running, resulting in shin splints and stress fractures.

She was unable to run cross-country at Leavenworth High the first year after her family had moved to Kansas, which was her junior year. 

During her senior year, Leigh knew that if she was going to college as an athlete, it would be as a runner.  She began setting goals — dealing with her weight and food issues as best she could, winning races, gaining attention and again, shattering records.

During her senior year, Leigh was invited to visit several schools —  including colleges in Kansas and Missouri. The small college town of Boone, however, was most intriguing; “a good fit for her,” Claude shared, with a good running program and in North Carolina, where he was considering for retirement.

After visiting ASU and chatting with Coach John Weaver, Leigh applied and was accepted. Her food obsession followed her, resulting in more disappointment in the beginning. She eventually overcame the disorder and was once again setting and breaking records.

Claude became a professor of military science and  commander of the army ROTC at App State; Louise began teaching in the public schools.

Life was good for the Coopers. Leigh met a young man, Chris Wallace, and the two soon became connected — for the rest of her life.

New App State Scholarship Helps Keep Leigh’s Memory Alive

The legacy of Leigh Cooper Wallace will live on for a long time to come.  Thanks to the insight and encouragement of Barbara Daye, former Dean of Students at Appalachian State University, a college scholarship has recently been established in her memory.

Daye first met Leigh and her family after Leigh’s 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, “Leigh was my hero, and in my opinion, she 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 in her short lifetime. “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.”

Leigh’s parents began talking about it, and with the help of Daye and Katie Pate, Assistant Athletic Director for Development (at App State), it is nearing reality.

“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.

The endowment will provide an annual scholarship in the amount of $1,000 to a member of App State’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 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 cooperce67@gmail.com or mailed to 113 Knollwood Drive, Clemson, SC 29631.

A Survivor, Not A Victim

Things changed in late 1989. While a student at ASU, Leigh was abducted and raped by a man, who five days earlier, had abducted and brutally murdered another young woman. After three hours of physical and mental torture, Leigh managed to escape. She provided key evidence which allowed authorities to quickly capture her abductor, and her testimony resulted in the death sentence for this killer. Realizing she had been given a second chance on life, Leigh took control of her eating issues, resumed her college studies, and became one of the greatest runners in ASU history.

Cooper shared. “She vowed to make the best of it — to consider herself a survivor, not a victim. She also wanted her new life to be impactful.”  And it was.

Leigh finished college, and in her senior year won four individual Southern Conference championships in track, to include the 3,000- 5,000- and 10,000-meter races, over a two-day period.  

After graduation, Leigh coached high school cross-country for ten years at Watauga High School, producing four state champion teams and six state runner-up teams. She became an advocate for victims, speaking at numerous rallies and events, featured on national TV and in magazines. She was also a beloved high school teacher, a loving wife to Chris, and mother to their two children, Jacob and Haleigh, and a beacon of light admired and followed by an ever-increasing fan club, of sorts. 

Leigh was passionate about running, not just for racing, but training, as well, Cooper described. “Any runner that Leigh coached will tell you that she carried that passion over into her coaching.” 

About two years after her death, Cooper said, he decided that he could not let her story die. 

It was Leigh’s story, and he wanted her to tell it, Cooper concluded.   “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Even though Leigh died, the story survived, thanks to Louise, who not only encouraged me to keep it alive, but contributed significantly to it. I’m grateful to all the others, too, who contributed and offered their support. I always believed this would be a powerful story.”

Leigh’s sister, Holley, came up with the title, “Finding Strong,” Cooper said. “Leigh’s favorite saying was, ‘You’re stronger than you think.’  Sometimes, it just takes a little digging to find that strength that we all have inside of us.”

While he believes every young woman should read “Finding Strong,” Cooper said he would caution parents to use their judgment as to age-appropriateness for young children.  

“Leigh’s description of the terror she went through during her assault is graphic. She wanted readers to know that what she endured was brutal, but she was able to survive, put it behind her, and speak about it without any feeling of guilt or shame.”

Words from ASU Track Coach, John Weaver

"Defining moments expose our character, courage, cowardice, and other aspects of our inner self. Leigh Cooper Wallace experienced her defining moment that changed her life and influenced a multitude of people who heard or read her story. She exposed within herself a reaction to the most primal of circumstances; survival or perish from the actions of a psychopathic killer.

From her ordeal, she became a strong example of the strength  of  a  woman  in  overcoming  her  greatest  challenge to survive through resolve, commitment to life, and patience. Leigh was not going to be a statistic; she was determined to be counted as a survivor. During her kidnapping, she saw the body of a previous victim, which clued her into her potential future. She calmly and methodically prepared herself for death or life. She succeeded in accomplishing life. Sadly, much later pneumonia took her life. A great loss, yet she is still an influence to us all.

Subsequent to her ordeal, Leigh used her acclaim to encourage us all to face our fears and never give up. We should strive every day to make things happen. She took her advice and brought it with her in teaching and coaching. She exemplified the mantra of facing your fears and successfully shared this with her students, athletes, friends and the world through guest appearances in various media. A spirit that encouraged, inspired, and challenged all within her influence.

Her story continues to touch everyone who reads or listens to it. Her defining moment brought out the best in her and inspires us all to seek out the best in ourselves in all our moments.”

The Coopers will always treasure the love and support their family received from friends in Watauga County in the days and years following Leigh’s death, Claude said. “Your compassion makes us strong. Louise and I are also grateful to our Clemson friends who have supported us and allowed us to begin a new life after the one we loved so much came to an end. You’ve enabled us to live and love and laugh again.”

The Cooper and Wallace families reluctantly moved away from “Cooper Ridge,” as they called their mountain home near Todd. They didn’t want to leave Leigh behind, but it was best for all to get a new start, they agreed. Leigh’s parents have found their niche in Clemson, SC where they first met; Chris has lived in Charlotte since 2013. Jacob “Jake” and his wife, Jordan Horvath, currently live in Michigan with their two children, Lynleigh, age 7, and Keenan, age 3.

Haleigh and her husband, Rob Parker, live near Durham where they are part owners and managers of a gym.

Finding Strong is available at Amazon.com — $16.00 for paperback, $4.49 for Kindle version. Signed copies by Cooper are available by request with additional shipping charges.