An 'Abundant Life' of Enthusiasm and Achievement

Friends and members of Leslie Sherman's family wait after the memorial service.
Friends and members of Leslie Sherman's family wait after the memorial service. "She wanted to help people in any way she could," said high school friend Amy LaCrosse. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2007

Twenty years and one week and so much already accomplished.

Leslie Sherman ran a marathon. She met one of her idols, historian David McCullough. She traveled to Argentina and Ecuador. She marched with civil rights activists in Alabama. She rebuilt homes in New Orleans, donated blood regularly and cut off her hair to donate to children in need of wigs.

"You just knew this was a kid who was going to change the world," said James A. Percoco, Sherman's history teacher during her senior year at West Springfield High School. "She already had."

Hundreds of family members, classmates and friends gathered at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria yesterday to celebrate and mourn the life of Sherman, one of 32 students and teachers killed by a gunman at Virginia Tech on April 16, a week after her 20th birthday.

Proudly displaying maroon and orange ribbons, they prayed that God might help them become more like Sherman.

"She showed us, in everything she did, how to live an abundant life," said the Rev. Robert R. Laha Jr., the church's pastor.

Sherman, whose parents served in the military, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

In the 10 days since her death, Sherman's friends have praised her, sharing stories about the passion the sophomore brought to all aspects of her life. Emily Grossman, a cross-country teammate at West Springfield who attends Florida State University, said Sherman became an unofficial cheerleader, encouraging everyone to keep going.

"She always kept telling me: 'You can do it. It's just another mile or two or six,' " Grossman said. "She cheered us all on."

Sherman ran cross-country and track in all four years of high school and was also an academic star. The president of the history honor society, she was named the social studies department's top student in the Class of 2005. She was accepted into the honors program at Virginia Tech and had enough credits from Advanced Placement classes that she could have graduated a year early with a double major in history and international studies.

Although she excelled in every subject, teachers said, Sherman was particularly devoted to history. She took several AP classes within the department, plus Applied History, Percoco's senior-level course in which he led students on a "civil rights pilgrimage" to mark the 40th anniversary of the start of the civil rights movement.

During the trip to Montgomery and Selma, Ala., Sherman was inspired by her conversations with civil rights activists John Lewis and Coretta Scott King, Percoco said. At Virginia Tech, she took another class about the civil rights movement and helped pay for her education by washing dishes in an on-campus eatery because one of the activists told her he put himself through college that way.

"I have this incredible memory of her standing with 10,000 other people on the Edmund Pettis Bridge singing civil rights anthems," Percoco said. "She was just so excited about it."

When Sherman found out that a student in Percoco's class was not planning to travel to Alabama because he couldn't afford it, she told the teacher she wanted to help raise money to make sure he made the trip. The student was deeply moved upon learning of Sherman's generosity at the end of the school year, Percoco said.

"She was a master at merging spirit and mind," he said. "That's what her great gift was. It was not a matter of pursuing intellectual knowledge for intellectual knowledge's sake."

Sherman also became fascinated with Russian history and language. She was planning a three-week trip to Moscow this summer and a semester abroad there next spring. She was still thinking about how to make the best use of her academic interests and her desire to help people after graduation and had recently considered joining the Peace Corps.

Teachers and friends said they knew that Sherman would have continued to dedicate her life to helping people. Last Thanksgiving, she spent a long weekend rebuilding New Orleans homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and helped repair her grandmother's house in Mississippi.

"She wanted to help people in any way she could, whether that was rebuilding a house or just smiling at you in the hallway," said Amy LaCrosse, a friend from West Springfield.

LaCrosse said Sherman earned the respect of her classmates because of her intelligence and kindness.

"Even in high school, where there's all that drama, I never heard a single bad thing about her," LaCrosse said. "In class, she would listen a lot so she could formulate her opinion, and then she would bring up something nobody had thought of. And then it was like, 'Oh, wow,' and no one would talk after that."

Several friends said they assumed Sherman would write a book, probably several of them. Although she never got that chance, some of her insights on history will be published next year in a book by Percoco about Lincoln monuments.

"She's the star of the first chapter," said Percoco, who has kept a photo of Sherman with McCullough on his desk since she graduated. "The book will be another kind of tribute to her legacy."

Six students from the Washington area were killed in the Virginia Tech shootings. Each is being profiled the day after the funeral this week. These stories, and profiles of all 32 victims, can be found at

© 2007 The Washington Post Company