Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Henry Lee: An energetic and intelligent spirit

Henry Lee, aka Henh Ly

Henry Lee, aka Henh Ly

  • Age: 20
  • Class: 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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The phone just rang. And rang.

The voice mail would pick up, but never Henh Ly himself.

His big brother and fellow Virginia Tech student, Manh Lee, called and called. He waited for six hours at Montgomery Regional Hospital, asking anybody he could if they knew about Henh, or Henry Lee, as the 2006 William Fleming High School graduate was known at Tech.

No one knew a thing.

Manh Lee knew this much. His little brother lived a floor below the site of two shooting deaths Monday morning in West Ambler Johnston Hall. Roommates told Manh Lee that his brother set out for class at 8 a.m., bound for a 9 a.m. French class in Norris Hall.

Manh Lee also knew by then what had happened in two places on campus that morning.

“I was just worried, because I heard it happened in West AJ and Norris,” said Manh Lee, a junior at Tech.

At last Manh Lee came home to Roanoke and waited for an e-mail. He said he figured that was the best hope to hear that his little brother was alive. None arrived.

About 6 p.m., a call finally came to the family home. Ly’s body was in Roanoke. Manh Lee still isn’t sure how or why his brother’s body ended up here.

Regardless, it was the end of an energetic and intelligent spirit, whose brief life had carried him from Vietnam to Roanoke to the peak of academic achievement and U.S. citizenship.

Henh Ly, which is what Roanokers still call him, was the ninth of 10 children of Song Ly and Mui Lenh.

Song Ly was an only child who escaped on foot from communist China to Vietnam with his mother around 1950. She had been imprisoned in a communist “re-education camp.”

More than 40 years later, Song Ly brought his children to Roanoke in search of a better life.

Ly, who was about 5 and spoke no English when his family arrived here in 1994, made the most of the opportunity.

He was focused and driven academically, with only a B or two among stacks of A s on his high school transcript.

“It’s not like he thought he should get an A,” said Jonathan Bayer, who taught Ly math at Fleming. “It’s not like he thought it was an entitlement to him.”

Ly was a serious student, but hardly a serious person, his friends said.

“Kind of a nervous wreck sometimes, but in the end he was a little clown,” said Samantha Smith, one of a small group of Ly’s friends in Fleming’s International Baccalaureate program. She is now a freshman at the University of Tennessee.

“He was a shy person when you first got to know him, but once you were friends with him he was the most wacky and funny and spastic person,” said Amanda Theller, another Fleming friend, now at Liberty University. One of his many I nternet screen names was “spasticdude,” she recalled.

Fatima Cordova, a senior at Fleming, was Ly’s prom date last year. She towered over the diminutive Ly, even without heels.

She later learned he was trying desperately to learn a dance called “the motorcycle” so he wouldn’t embarrass her. He failed miserably, but his effort made the night unforgettable for Cordova.

His clowning never hindered his academic achievement, which he managed while also working at Sears. By graduation , he had racked up endless honors.

At Fleming’s academic awards ceremony, Ly was called to the stage so many times that Principal Susan Lawyer Willis finally told him to sit on the stage with the faculty. And he did.

Despite a friendly but intense rivalry with his friend Zach Zimmerman, Ly ended up second in his class. Willis said Ly was less pleased when he learned that meant he had to give a speech.

She had to hound him for a month to get him ready. He would stick his head in her office and just shake it side to side. She would nod back a silent “yes.”

When commencement came, Ly took the stage and told the story of how his family came to America. “Look at me,” was the message he delivered, Willis recalled. “If I can do it, everyone can do it.”

He left Willis and all his friends in tears.

His success continued at Tech, where he kept up his near flawless academic record. He made a single B, his brother said, despite a heavy course load.

Ly kept in contact with his Fleming friends via e-mail , cellphone and his Facebook page.

As word spread of the shootings Monday, his friends, like his brother, began trying to call him.

Cordova left several messages on his cellphone.

“I hope you busted him with your ninja moves,” she said in an early message.

By 5 p.m., she was worried.

“Hey dude, it’s not funny,” she said. “Call me back.”

A short time later, she heard the worst.

Manh Lee said his mother, Mui Lenh was taken to the hospital Monday night after she fainted twice. “My mom’s real depressed right now,” he said.

On Tuesday, word spread across Fleming , where teachers and students sought out counselors.

The school is planning a memorial service for Sunday.

“We’re going to miss the Henh Ly we know,” Willis said. But the real sadness is that “the world is going to miss what he had to offer.”

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