Tony Le (’07) was the kind of guy who was always there for others – birthdays, events, moving, a pickup basketball game – you name it, Le was there. So when the day came that Le wasn’t there anymore, his friends from Gonzaga stepped in to carry his legacy forward.
“Tony loved interacting with people, getting to know people and doing the right thing by volunteering for anyone that needed help,” recalled Le’s friend and classmate, Zachary Oliver (’06). Le’s Gonzaga experience was largely defined by his volunteering and service through the Center for Community Action and Service Learning and for many, CCASL was defined by Le.
“He gravitated there because he was comfortable, but he also brought a lot of people to CCASL and made them feel good for being there,” said Ann Nemitz (’08) another friend of Le’s. “He was always welcoming people, always up for a good time.” At CCASL, Le helped to launch Gonzaga University Specialized Recreation (GUSR), a student-run program that partners Spokane community adults who have special needs with Gonzaga students.
“He was a constant at CCASL, always helping somebody with something. He’d say ‘hi’ to people, get to know them and offer a helping hand if he could.” added Oliver. “People just loved him because he was always so involved in so many of their projects. The GU slogan then was Educating People the World Needs Most, and Tony was definitely one of those people.”
In November of 2012, five years after graduating from Gonzaga with his degree in engineering, Le was living and working in the Seattle area. Oliver and Nemitz were there, too. Over the years, Le had inspired his friends to join him in his philanthropic pursuits, including volunteering with the Special Olympics. They had no idea that in less than a year’s time, they would be carrying on his work without him.
At the age of 28, Tony Le had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
“It was really uncomfortable for him,” Oliver remembers. “For him to be in this place where he couldn’t be the strong one anymore was really difficult. We wanted him to know that he was not in this fight alone.” Friends took Le to Disneyland, Las Vegas, to Spokane for a Gonzaga basketball game and to Portland to see the Trail Blazers play. “He got to meet LeBron James, Ray Allen, Chris Bosh, Damien Lillard – he loved that,” said Oliver. “Like a kid in a candy store,” added Nemitz.
Tony Le lost his battle with cancer in October of 2013. One of his final acts in support of CCASL came by way of a GUSR pizza party he funded through his will. Le’s gift inspired Nemitz and Oliver to follow their friend’s example once again.
“Service was just something that at first, I did to boost my entry into college,” said Oliver. “Tony taught me to do it for the sake of other people.”
“Tony made volunteering part of our lives,” added Nemitz. “In Seattle when we weren’t a part of the University anymore, there wasn’t one major network connecting us to service. Tony made it easy. He just said, ‘hey, I’m going to start a Special Olympics team. I’ll pick you up at seven,’ and everyone showed up at seven.”
“I wanted to create something that people could really rally behind in Tony’s honor,” explained Oliver. So, he and Nemitz organized the first annual “Le Olympics” – a fundraiser in remembrance of their friend.
“We knew the games couldn’t be ‘everyone wins,’ because Tony wouldn’t have wanted that,” said Nemitz. “There had to be a clearly defined winner and a trophy.” Medals were made and winners were crowned, including CCASL, the beneficiary of the funds raised by the Le Olympics.
“We plan to continue it for as long as we can,” said Oliver. “We try to pick the Saturday closest to Tony’s birthday, the 19th of July.” Oliver and Nemitz are making plans for the second annual Le Olympics and have secured LeOlympics.org for anyone interested in joining in support of CCASL and carrying on the legacy of Tony Le.
CCASL is currently celebrating 20 years of providing service opportunities for Gonzaga students and was recently honored with three prestigious awards for civic engagement and community service. Learn more about CCASL’s programs and honors at gonzaga.edu/CCASL.
Story by Holly Jones. This story originally appeared in Gonzaga’s Giving Newsletter, Winter 2015 Edition. The original can be found here.