Annie Le, whose body was found on the day she planned to wed, was mourned Monday by family members and friends from her hometown in the scenic Sierra Nevada foothills as smart and vibrant, kind and funny.
The Yale University graduate student of Vietnamese heritage grew up in a remote, hilly area off a twisting, one-lane gravel road with an aunt and uncle she regarded as parents. Her brother remembered her on Facebook as someone who “left this world doing what she loved.”
“She may be small, but she be fierce,” Chris Le wrote of his 24-year-old sister, who was pursuing a degree in pharmacology. “Stuck in a 4' 11" frame, she had a 7' tall personality. She will always live on through us.”
Le graduated from Union Mine High School in nearby El Dorado, valedictorian of a class of 362 and one of two students voted “Most Likely to Be the Next Einstein.” In a picture of the victorious pair, Le wears a white lab coat and her broad smile, and holds a partly dissected cat.
Shayna Mcdonnell, a high school classmate, remembered the studious Le as shy on the outside but goofy on the inside.
“She always teased me that I didn’t have a butt,” said Mcdonnell, 24, recalling that Le gave her a birthday antidote: a pair of satin panties with shoulder pads sewn in.
Le did her undergraduate work at the University of Rochester; Princeton University had been her first choice, but her dream school turned her down. Her response, recalled former classmate Cierra Silva Montes, was to send a photograph of her rear end to the dean of admissions.
“She was really little, but she always spoke out and held her own,” said Montes, who called Le a “spunky little thing.” “She was street-smart and book-smart at the same time, which is very rare when you come across someone with the same IQ she had.”
Le volunteered hundreds of hours at Marshall Medical Center in El Dorado County and was volunteer of the year for the 2002-03 academic year.
“You couldn’t help but love her,” said Kathleen Gleason, who worked with the hospital volunteers during Le’s tenure. “But at her young age, how confident she was. Not all kids at that age are that smart and driven and have friends. She seemed to have it all.”
Scores of high school volunteers have tromped through the mountain hospital’s corridors, enough that they tend to blend together. That’s particularly true in pathology, a discipline glamorized by the likes of television’s “NCIS” and “CSI.” But Le, who graduated from high school in 2003 with a 4.28 grade point average, stood out.
“It’s difficult to be a supervisor of a junior volunteer who’s considerably brighter than you are,” said Gary Martin, director of operations for the hospital’s pathology department. “We used to joke that she could do a calculus problem quicker than she could wash a bottle.”
But bottle washing she did -- happily. When she was done with the “mundane chores,” Martin said, she’d get to pick a slide, sit next to a pathologist, look through the microscope and learn.
“Her motive was science. She was curious in cell biology and how all these things work on the microscopic level,” Martin said. “Every one of my pathologists saw themselves in Annie. At her valedictorian speech, she talked about what pathology meant to her.”
Although Le ended up pursuing a career in pharmacology, she was quoted in her senior yearbook as gunning for a future as “a laboratory pathologist -- it’s one step above surgery.”
“So, I’ve got to go to school for about 12 years first,” the clear-eyed girl said, “get my MD and be certified as a surgeon. I just hope that all that hard work is going to pay off and I’m really going to enjoy my job.”
Union Mine High Principal Tony DeVille said Monday that Le labored for hours every day during the college admissions process and earned more than $160,000 in scholarship money.
“The teachers that knew Annie and interacted with her are distraught,” said DeVille, who came to the school after Le graduated. “They talk about the terrible waste of potential. It’s very sad for everyone.”
DeVille said the school was considering a memorial and wanted to “offer whatever kind of assistance and support to her family” that was possible.
Le’s violent death has “caused us all to wonder about where things are going,” DeVille said, and residents were mourning that “someone like this, so likable and willing to give back to the community, is now gone.”
Times staff writer Geraldine Baum in New Haven, Conn., contributed to this report.