Monday, April 23, 2007

Fleming grad stood tall in hearts of many

Henry Lee was small in stature, but his death leaves a large void in the lives of his friends.

Princeton University flew Zach Zimmerman, a 2006 William Fleming graduate and valedictorian, home after they learned his former classmate, Henry Lee, was killed in the Virginia Tech shootings. Zimmerman gets a hug from high school classmate Samantha Shepherd.

Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times

Princeton University flew Zach Zimmerman, a 2006 William Fleming graduate and valedictorian, home after they learned his former classmate, Henry Lee, was killed in the Virginia Tech shootings. Zimmerman gets a hug from high school classmate Samantha Shepherd.

Henh Ly, aka Henry Lee

  • Age: 20
  • Status: Freshman
  • Major: Computer engineering
  • Hometown: Roanoke
  • High School: William Fleming
  • Parents: Song Ly and Mui Lenh
  • Blacksburg residence: West Ambler Johnston Hall

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Their rivalry was intense, surpassed only by the bond of their friendship.

Zach Zimmerman was William Fleming High School's 2006 valedictorian. Henh Ly, known to many now as Henry Lee, finished right behind him. Friends since elementary school, Zach began to grow after a while. Lee didn't. He called Zimmerman "fatty," and Zimmerman called him "Number Two."

By graduation, Zimmerman was a full head taller than Lee.

"That puts his head at my chest, at my heart," Zimmerman said Sunday at a memorial service for Lee at his old high school. "And that's where he'll stay."

Lee, 20, perished with 31 other people at the hands of an enraged gunman a week ago at Virginia Tech, where he was a freshman computer engineering major.

Sunday's memorial service revealed how his diminutive size belied the huge space he occupied in the hearts of those who loved him.

Some 1,000 mourners packed the Fleming auditorium for the memorial service organized by his classmates, and spilled over into the gym to see the service on closed-circuit television. Some came from several states away. Zimmerman flew in at the expense of Princeton University, which he now attends.

Many arrived in a snaking caravan from a private funeral service, lead by a hearse carrying Lee's body. The casket was placed on the floor in front of the auditorium stage, along with traditional Buddhist funeral accents such as burning incense and an offering of food for Lee's next journey. Later, the casket would be taken to Blue Ridge Memorial Gardens for burial.

More than a dozen people spoke, all them at some point breathless with emotion, the pitch of their voices soaring as they strained to keep their composure. In between, they laughed.

"He was the most spastic person I've ever come across," said Lee's Fleming classmate, Evan Gall, who came in from Oklahoma. "He was just nuts, and I loved him for that."

Derek Spangler became friends with Lee mainly because they were about the same height, Spangler said.

Yet Lee would ask him, ironically, "Why are you so short?"

Academically, though, Lee was anything but a clown. He was "fearless" in his drive, Gall said, and pressed his friends to achieve with him.

He would call them lazy and harass them when they didn't turn in work.

"It was worse than our parents," Gall said.

In Miaisha Nunnelly's yearbook, Lee wrote, "It has been fun fighting with you over scholarship money." Lee won that battle, Nunnelly said later. She rode a bus 10 hours from Ohio State University to be at the service.

Lee came from an immigrant family of limited means. They arrived in this country from Vietnam in 1994, but were thoroughly Chinese culturally. The family speaks Cantonese at home. Lee's father and grandmother fled communist China on foot around 1950.

Song Ly and Mui Lenh came to the U.S. as refugees on the strength of a single letter certifying that Song Ly had worked as a canteen manager for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, said Nancy Calkin, a volunteer with Roanoke's Refugee and Immigration Service and a close family friend.

Song Ly recently retired from the Home Shopping Network. Generous donors have helped the family manage funeral expenses for the ninth of their 10 children.

"We came here full of hopes and dreams," Henry Lee said in his graduation speech, a video of which played during Sunday's service. Though we are all on a journey, he said in June, "the obstacles you have overcome, and not the destination, define who you are."

Last year, Lee redefined himself: as a U.S. citizen. It was then that he took his new name: Henry Jake Lee. He chose a "J" name for his middle name, because J falls exactly in the middle of his first and last initials.

He was always something of an American kid, it seems. A montage of pictures showed him as a boy at the beach, on a merry-go-round, picking apples, goofing in a Power Ranger costume. Most pictures, though, showed a smiling young man always surrounded by a crowd of friends or family.

"He was always the one who called to get us all together," testified Lewis Kleiner, another Fleming classmate.

Lee himself, in his graduation speech, described feeling lost in his first American classroom amid strangers who spoke a language he didn't understand.

Yet as soon as he was able he surrounded himself with friends who would remain with him until his death.

Elizabeth Weddle was yet another classmate there to mourn him Sunday.

"His influence extends beyond what he ever knew," she said, "or could ever have imagined."

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