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Family of UC San Diego Late Pole Vaulter, Léon Roach, Honored

Jade Griffin | May 31, 2011

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Leon Roach
The terraces are a memorial for the late Triton student-athlete Léon Roach.
Photos/Erik Jepsen

On a gloomy recent afternoon, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds just in time to shine down on a group of more than 100 people gathered at the new pole vault terraces in remembrance of Léon Talichet Roach III on the UC San Diego campus. Student-athletes, staff, faculty, alumni and friends were there to honor the contributions made by MaryAnn and Léon Roach II in memory of their son.

A sophomore majoring in neurosciences, Léon Roach III was an avid pole-vaulter and beloved member of the UC San Diego track and field team. His nickname, given by his teammates, was Mr. Happy for his positive attitude on “Bootcamp” Fridays with track and field coach Darcy Ahner. Léon would often wear a T-shirt with a bright, yellow happy face.

Unfortunately, Léon was injured during a training exercise in 2009 and passed away two days later. Seeking an appropriate way to honor Léon, whom they often called Lele, the Roach family decided that a spectator area near the pole vault facility would be a fitting memorial. At first discouraged by the cost of such a project, the Roaches did not give up. Léon Roach II drew up plans for block-faced terraces nearby the pole vault runway and pit, and together with UC San Diego Athletics, the family hosted a series of “vault-a-thons” raising more than $37,000 for the memorial.

Leon Roach
MaryAnn and Léon Roach II, with Léon III's half brother and sister, Christyn and Curtis.

From there, 180 volunteers including family and friends, UC San Diego staff, faculty and student-athletes on the track and field and softball teams offered their time—mostly on weekends—to complete the terraces this spring. If contracted out, the terraces project would have cost an estimated $350,000.

“We are extremely grateful to the Roach family for their support, determination and vision, all of which helped to make this project a reality,” said Chancellor Marye Anne Fox at the event. “The volunteer effort to build the terraces was nothing less than a Herculean feat.” 

In total, nearly 3,000 hours were expended on the project making it one of the largest projects undertaken as part of Volunteer50: Chancellor’s Call to Service in honor of UC San Diego’s 50th Anniversary. Through the Volunteer50 initiative, Chancellor Fox challenged all students, faculty, staff, alumni and university friends to perform 50 hours of service during the university’s 50th Anniversary celebration. 

Director of Athletics Earl W. Edwards commented on the Roaches’ generosity: “The Roaches embody the true meaning of caring, truth, love and family. We are blessed to have them as part of the Triton family.”

Leon Roach
A crowd of around 100 gathered on the new terraces for the tribute.

In addition to highlighting the efforts of the nearly 200 volunteers who helped make the terraces a reality, Edwards gave special recognition to Kris Grant of Synthetic Lawn Supply; architect Vic Nguyen; James and Denise Cochran of construction company, James M. Cochran, Inc.; and David Gerdes of Estancia La Jolla Resort and Spa for their support of the project.

MaryAnn and Léon Roach then took the podium and thanked the crowd for coming out in honor of their son, and for their dedication of time, effort and resources.

“Initially, when we talked about a memorial, I was thinking of a nice bench in honor of Léon,” MaryAnn Roach reflected on the project, “but my husband is a big thinker—just like Lele was.”

Léon continued: “You learn more in the hard times than the good.  We learned about loving support from the community and that helped us through.”

True to their generous spirit, the Roaches also established the Léon T. Roach Academic Scholarship for Athletes to help support outstanding student-athletes attending UC San Diego. Dustin Harris, a third-year student majoring in human biology, with minors in theatre and psychology, is the inaugural recipient of the scholarship. A member of UC San Diego’s track and field team, Harris plans to attend medical school upon graduation. The support has made a significant impact for him and his parents, who both lost jobs during Harris’ freshman year.

Leon Roach
Cookies with happy faces were served in honor of Léon Roach III, called Mr. Happy by his teammates.

Harris related to the crowd his first thoughts when he found out he received the scholarship, “Why me? Why am I so special?” He went on: “Right now, the Roaches are the most generous, most impactful people in my life. All I can do is say thank you.”

The Department of Athletics then announced that a special plaque had been installed in Triton Stadium in honor of Léon and the family’s contributions. The plaque, which bears a happy face, in honor of Lele’s positive attitude, reads:

The UC San Diego Athletic Department Thanks
The Leon & MaryAnn Roach Family
And a Legion of Volunteers for their Legacy of Giving

The Roaches concluded with the event with a thank you message. “We feel like you have allowed us to honor our son. Lele would have been overwhelmed. We know why he loved UC San Diego so much.”

The ceremony was followed by a reception where cookies in the shape of smiley faces were served.

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