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Chris and Leigh Cooper Wallace

Originally published: 2013-07-02 14:44:47
Last modified: 2013-07-02 14:45:31

Late WHS coach named AWF's 2013 Woman of the Year

by Jeff Eason

Some people make such an impact on others that their legacy lasts much longer than their lives. 

Such is the case with Leigh Cooper Wallace, a coach, teacher and mentor to hundreds of students at Watauga High School. 

Wallace died in December 2012, yet the positive impression she left on others lives on. 

The Appalachian Women's Fund named Wallace its Woman of Vision for 2013 at its annual Women of Vision Luncheon at Linville Ridge Country Club on Thursday. 

Accepting the award on behalf of Leigh was her husband, Chris Wallace, sister Julie Cooper Hodge and her in-laws, Candace and Ray Wallace. 

"A couple of weeks before she died, we were hosting some teachers from Pakistan," said Chris Wallace. "They had a somewhat unfavorable view of Americans, particularly about the way we treated our elderly. Leigh spent countless hours with them, late into the night, and completely changed their opinion on how they perceived America. They were constantly telling me how beautiful Leigh was, both inside and out, and how lucky I was. 

"This award has helped to make the past six months more tolerable." 

Wallace's legacy includes starting up the local chapter of Girls on the Run, an organization that encourages young girls and teenagers to be more active and increase their self-esteem. Wallace's motto was "You are stronger than you think."

She also spoke publicly to girls about a 1989 incident in which she was abducted and raped by Daniel Lee when she was 20. Lee had murdered another young woman, Jenny Gray, five days earlier and took Wallace to the same place off  Jake's Mountain Road and sexually assaulted her there. 

"Leigh not only survived her attack, she thrived after her attack," said Cathy Williamson to the luncheon crowd of 320. "Leigh knew that rape was about control and dominance. From that night forward, Leigh would never be dominated again." 

Wallace escaped from Lee and told her story to the police. 

"Leigh gave police enough information to find her assailant and put him on death row for the murder of Jenny Gray," Williamson said. 

After the presentation of the Woman of Vision Award, a live auction was held for five items, including round-trip Southwestern Airlines tickets to any place in the United States, a week at a beach house at Heron's Landing on Ocracoke Island, a sculpture to be commissioned by artist Alex Hallmark, professional landscape design and one week's lodging for eight people at Deer Creek Ranch in Montana. 

The five items were auctioned for a total of $9,600. 

The luncheon also featured a silent auction that included items donated from more than 150 businesses and individuals. 

"I read a testimonial by a young woman who was taking part in a program funded by the Appalachian Women's Fund," Williamson said. "As I read, I kept finding myself unable to connect with her words. Our experiences were different. Our marriages were different. Our points of view and our vision of the world were very different.

"After time in an abusive marriage, she turned to drugs as a way to cope. What spoke to my heart and my mind about her story was her observation that she began wearing only long sleeves. That got me thinking about what long sleeves mean to me and to you."

Williamson spoke about how long sleeves can be used to hide needle tracks, bruises from abuse, signs of an eating disorder or even self-mutilation. 

"As strong, healthy, independent women we know all about long sleeves," she said. "We roll them up when a tough job comes our way. We get busy and we get moving until the job is done.

"As emotional, caring, loving women, we wear our hearts on our sleeves. We see weak and make it strong. We see wrong and make it right. We see despair and we find joy."

The mission of the Appalachian Women's Fund is to be a "philanthropic catalyst for social change and economic justice with the goal of creating a community where all women and girls reach their full potential."

The AWF raises funds and distributes them to organizations in Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties that serve women and children. Those organizations include OASIS (Opposing Abuse with Service, Information and Shelter), ASHE (A Safe Home for Everyone), the Western Youth Network, New Opportunity School for Women, The Children's Council and Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture, among others.