Henry Lee, Remembered as Funny, Brilliant

Henry Lee, one of the Virginia Tech shooting victims, was known at Fleming High in Roanoke, Va., as a funny, helpful and brilliant student. The 20-year-old was an immigrant from China who didn't speak any English when he arrived in the United States as a child. But he became the salutatorian of his high school class and was about to finish his freshman year at Virginia Tech when he was killed.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

One of the Virginia Tech shooting victims, 20-year-old freshman Henry Lee, is being recalled as funny, brilliant and helpful by staff and students at Fleming High School in Roanoke, Virginia. More from NPR's Rachel Jones.

RACHEL JONES: Fleming High's principal, Susan Willis, was at a seminar in Richmond when she learned about the shootings. Mesmerized by the cable TV images, Willis says one thing consumed her.

Ms. SUSAN WILLIS (Fleming High School): I thought immediately, Henh Ly, my salutatorian, who is an engineering major who takes classes in Norris Hall.

JONES: Back in Roanoke, at first, Willis was told, Lee was safe. But a late evening call confirmed that Lee was, in fact, among the dead.

Willis says Lee came to the U.S. from China as Henh Ly. She's not certain, but she thinks he was somewhere between six and nine years old. Willis does know that he didn't speak a word of English. But she says his enthusiasm about learning and his brilliance helped him succeed, so much so that Lee eventually graduated second in Fleming High's class of 2006. But though Lee was known as funny and outgoing, Willis says he balked when told he'd have to give the salutatorian speech.

Ms. WILLIS: And he said to me, please, you know, don't make me do it. And so it was for probably a month, he would walk by my office and he would shake his head, no. And I would nod my head, yes.

JONES: But Willis says Lee gave a rousing speech that impressed the 5,000 attendees at last June's graduation.

Ms. WILLIS: And then afterwards, he shared with me, thank you, he said, and he grabbed me and hugged me and said, thank you for making me do that.

JONES: The achievement was heightened because Lee had only recently become an American citizen. That's when he changed his name from Henh to Henry. Eighteen-year old Takira(ph) Cooper knew Lee from sixth grade in Roanoke's Breckinridge Middle School until his 10th grade at Fleming. Cooper was checking the Facebook Web site for another reason when she noted tributes to a Henry Lee of Virginia Tech.

Ms. TAKIRA COOPER (Lee's Former Classmate): I was like, you can't be serious. I just saw his profile, like, a couple of days, when he had updated it and put a new picture out.

JONES: Cooper says Lee was the kind of guy who could tell if you were having a bad day. He always tried to make people laugh, to help brighten their spirits. He was also a good friend who helped Cooper by explaining their advance math homework simplest(ph).

Ms. COOPER: When we were in middle school, he always showed me his grades, and he pushed me harder to get better grades. So I think he was inspiration.

JONES: Fleming High's principal, Willis, says Lee's parents lived in Roanoke and that he had nine siblings - and that he was one of the most extraordinarily gifted students she ever worked with.

Rachel Jones, NPR News.

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