The outpouring of emotion during former Whitworth Athletic Director Aaron Leetch’s memorial service illustrated the high level of impact Leetch had on the Whitworth community. According to a campus-wide email from president Beck Taylor, Leetch was killed Monday, April 6, in a plane crash near Normal, Illinois. He was traveling with donors from an ISU event on a private airplane which crashed during landing. There were no survivors.
Leetch had returned to work at Illinois State University after serving as Whitworth’s athletic director from 2011-2013.
With attendants ranging from Whitworth president Beck Taylor to athletic coaches, athletes and professors, there was a palpable feeling of loss among those in attendance Tuesday in the Seeley G. Mudd Chapel who called Leetch their friend.
As Taylor gave his opening remarks and time was allowed for those who wished to say something about their experience with Leetch, women’s basketball coach Helen Higgs and baseball coach Dan Ramsay were keen on relating an anecdote or two of their experience with Leetch.
“There was something I teased Aaron about. It was that, ‘you’re in the Northwest, you don’t need to wear a suit to a football game. This isn’t Texas. It’s not the 1950s,’” Higgs said amid laughter from the audience.
“He loved to win and hated to lose. On multiple occasions, I recall him saying, ‘I will not lose to my 3-year-old daughter in checkers. I love to win,’” Ramsay said to reactions of laughs and nods from audience members.
Higgs, as well as Ramsay and men’s basketball coach Matt Logie, spent most of their speaking time telling the audience not only what made Leetch great, but why they admired him so much.
“He was not afraid of [success]. He made no bones about his desire to compete and to win and as a young coach, also new to this institution, to the Division III landscape, I appreciated that vigor,” Logie said. “I appreciated that passion for victory and I knew that I could go out with this program and achieve victory.”
That competitive attitude was a heavy talking point in both Higgs’ and Ramsay’s remarks about Leetch and each account brought forth a different angle highlighting Leetch’s interaction with the vast array of Whitworth athletics.
“Whether he was pacing the sidelines at football games, hiding behind the scoreboard at basketball games over in the Fieldhouse, or pacing the bleachers and rubbing his bald head at baseball games. There were times I feared he wanted to win more badly than I did myself,” Ramsay said.
However, Higgs chose to highlight how being a man of action and competitiveness influenced Leetch’s outlook on his job as athletic director.
“He was going to get things done. He was going to get out and be active, and one of the places that was most important was getting out and building relationships,” Higgs said. “He didn’t expect people to come to him. He went out and reached out to people.”
Higgs then went on to explain the significance of the McIlroy-Lewis All-Sports trophy and how the fact that Whitworth won the award regularly was a symbol of more than athletic success to Leetch.
“He was proud that we won the All-Sports trophy because it showed we were excellent in a lot of things if not all things,” Higgs said. “I remember him sitting and telling students, ‘You need to be excellent in the classroom. For some of you that’s an ‘A,’ for some of you it might not be an ‘A.’ You need to be excellent in your sport. You need to be the best you can be in your sport. You need to be an excellent roommate...When you’re older, you need to be excellent at your job. You need to be an excellent husband, wife, father, mother. You need to be an excellent friend.’ It was in every part of his life.”
Looking forward, Logie and Ramsay reflected on the impact Leetch has had and continues to have on their lives.
“To this day, he’s the only person I see standing behind the scoreboard. I’ll see him there for each game that I coach from now on,” Logie said.
Logie reflected upon his experience with the frequently heartbreaking way the basketball season ends for him, and how Leetch was always there in success and defeat.
“Aaron may not have had a lot of hair on his head, but he wore many hats. He celebrated with you after victory and he genuinely hurt with you after defeat,” Logie said. “He listened when you needed to talk. He mentored when you needed advice. Most of all, the hat he wore was the hat of a friend.”
On the other hand, Ramsay said he saw Leetch as the epitome of the kind of person he wanted to be.
“I revered Aaron. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to talk the way he talked, speak with the passion and flair he had, wear cowboy boots, workout like he did, love my wife like he loved Lindsay and be a father to my little girl like he was to Avery and Emmersen,” Ramsay said. “He was a man’s man. He exemplified in my eyes what it meant to be a man of courage and faith, a friend, a husband and a father. I’ll be forever grateful that our paths crossed and I was able to call him a friend. Although it was only for a short period of time, Aaron’s impact on my life was unspeakable. He made a difference and created memories that will last a lifetime.”
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