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Class of 1984
Mr. LeClair was an excellent all-around athlete at Fall Mountain, and was an even better person. After graduation in 1984 he played college baseball at Western Carolina University, (South Carolina) and was then drafted by the Atlanta Braves where he played one season of professional baseball in the Single A, Pioneer League.
He was then offered an assistant coaching job at his Alma Mater in 1989 and accepted the offer. He would become head coach in 1992 and at the tender age of 25, became the youngest college head baseball coach in the country. In his first season, Western Carolina got to within one game of reaching the College World Series.
In 1997 he became the head coach at East Carolina, and in just five seasons at the helm became the school's second all-time most winning coach, while winning the Colonial Conference Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2001.
Mr. LeClair was tragically diagnosed with ALS in 2001 and although he was told by doctors he had about a year to live, fought a couragous battle for five years before succumbing to this awful disease on July 19, 2006.
As a sports editor, I was lucky enough to re-connect with Mr. LeClair a couple years before his death, and we often chatted through email, which he was able to do through a special computer until the disease completely took over. It was an honor to have been able to reconnect with my classmate and meet his wonderful (and truly remarkable in her own right!) wife Lynn. I was also truly honored when asked by Mr. LeClair's mother Doris, to speak at his memorial service in Walpole. It was arguable the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, but also arguably the most rewarding.
Mr. LeClair's honors speak for not only the type of coach he was, but the type of person as well.
His familiar #23, which he had worn since his days playing first base for the Fall Mountain Wildcats, has been retired by both Western Carolina and East Carolina Universities. He was also elected into the Western Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame, and in March of 2005, Eastern Carolina opened a new multi-million dollar baseball stadium aptly named Clark–LeClair Stadium, co–named in honor of Mr. LeClair. These high honors obviously show the impact Mr. LeClair not only made in baseball, but the entire comminity.
Mr. LeClair is truly missed by his family, friends and classmates, and I also feel that his #23 should also be retired by Fall mountain Regional High School, for not only what he represented as a student athlete and college coach, but also a friend, a son and a father. As I had promised, Mr. LeClair will never be forgotten.
Joe Milliken Class of 1984
Attached is an article I wrote when Mr. LeClair passed away.
Baseball Coach Leaves Life–Long Impression
Former Fall Mountain Graduate Keith LeClair Succumbs After Long Battle
By Joe Milliken, Sports Editor
The Message For The Week, published July 21, 2006
Former East Carolina head baseball coach and Fall Mountain graduate Keith LeClair, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 2001, succumbed to the illness on July 19 after a courageous, five year battle. LeClair was 40 years old.
Born in Walpole, NH on February 28, 1966, LeClair grew up loving to play baseball, and dedicated his life to the sport that would eventually bring him nationwide notoriety, and unparalleled respect and popularity from his family, friends, teammates, coaches, players and the community alike.
A standout athlete at Fall Mountain Regional High School, the 1984 FM graduate made the Western Carolina (WCU) baseball team as a walk-on in 1985, and helped lead the Catamounts to four consecutive Southern Conference league championships.
Local sports writer Tom Haley was a social studies teacher at Fall Mountain during Keith’s high school tenure.
“Don’t ever let a teacher tell you they don’t have favorites,” Haley said. “They are human and they become attached to students in their classroom. Keith LeClair was at the top of my list. He was well-mannered, attentive and hard working.”
As a player, and over 20 years later, LeClair still ranks among the top ten in six WCU hitting categories, and in 1988 batted .423, which ranks seventh on the Cullowhee, North Carolina school’s all-time single season list. LeClair was voted MVP of the Southern Conference Tournament in 1988, and was named First Team All-Southern Conference the same season.
Current WCU head coach Todd Raleigh was LeClair’s teammate at WCU and coached under him at both WCU and East Carolina University. “Keith was one of the greatest players I ever played with,” Raleigh once told this editor. “He was just a complete player. He ran the bases well, played great defense and could hit for both average and power.”
Current Clemson University coach Jack Leggett, the former WCU head coach and Burlington, Vermont native who had first recruited LeClair. “Western Carolina just couldn’t offer Keith a scholarship at the time,” coach Leggett said in a 2004 interview.
“But he came in and he worked hard. He was just one of those self-made players,” Leggett continued. “He worked hard in the weight room and went from a straight singles hitter, to hitting 18 or 19 home runs in his senior year. He was just one of those kids that never gave up. Nothing was ever guaranteed to Keith as a player, and I just have the utmost respect for him.”
After his outstanding college career, LeClair signed with the Atlanta Braves and played for Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League for one season, before returning to his alma mater in 1989 as an assistant coach under Leggett.
After three seasons as an assistant coach, LeClair became the Catamounts’ head coach in 1992 when Leggett moved on to coach at Clemson. “It is an awful tough decision to leave WCU,” Leggett said at the time. “But I know I am leaving the program in the best possible hands with Keith.”
LeClair, at the tender age of 25, became the youngest college head baseball coach in the nation. In that first season under LeClair, WCU captured both the Southern Conference regular season and tournament championships, and after reaching the championship game at the South II Regional Tournament, came within one out of reaching the College World Series in Omaha. Getting to Omaha was always coach LeClair’s ultimate goal. In 1994 the Catamounts set a school record with 45 wins, earning the university’s first-ever, at large bid to the NCAA post season.
In LeClair’s six seasons as WCU head coach, he posted an impressive 229-135 record, led the Catamounts to four NCAA Tournament berths, and was named the Southern Conference Coach of the Year three times.
Following his successful tenure at WCU, LeClair accepted the head coaching position at East Carolina University (ECU) in 1997, and would go on to post an impressive 219-96 career record with the Pirates. He was named the Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2001, and led the Pirates to four NCAA Regional appearances, one Super Regional appearance and a Conference USA Tournament championship.
In just five seasons LeClair became ECU’s second all-time winningest baseball coach and led the Pirates to a school record 51-win season, before ALS forced him to step down as head coach in June of 2002. LeClair had announced to the public on August 17, 2001 that he was suffering from ALS symptoms, and within four months was officially diagnosed with the disease.
In October of 2002, LeClair was fittingly elected into the WCU Athletic Hall Of Fame for his baseball excellence. LeClair continued as a special consultant to the ECU Athletic Department, and was also a contributing baseball writer to the university’s web site until he could no longer perform these duties.
However through his incredible faith in God and the dedication from his family and the community, Keith never stopped fighting, and with the tireless work of his wife Lynn and their two children Audrey and J.D., continued to attend Pirate baseball games and communicate through a special “camera-eye” device hooked up to his home computer.
In 2004 the Keith LeClair Classic Invitational was established, a three-day baseball tournament created to raise money for ALS research. Now in its’ third year, the tournament has featured such elite college baseball programs as Arizona State, Clemson and North Carolina.
Then in late 2004 I started communicating with Keith through email, after learning from a mutual friend and classmate that ECU was to open a new, 3,000-seat baseball stadium to be co-named in his honor.
That close friend, classmate, and teammate of Keith’s in both high school and legion baseball was Dean Gay, who had faithfully followed LeClair's career after high school, and had travelled to visit Keith before, and after his illness. "It was just amazing to see the impact Keith had made in the community. Everywhere we went, people just showed the utmost respect for him. Especially his ball players."
After sending and receiving several emails from Keith over the next several months, I can remember often thinking to myself that here is a man who had the baseball career he loves so much just taken right out from under him, and yet here he was e-mailing a classmate he hadn’t seen in 20 years to say he didn’t deserve the honors he was receiving, and that he was blessed to be a part of the ECU family.
“The baseball stadium-naming is a great honor and one I can say I don’t deserve,” a humbled LeClair wrote. “It is a beautiful facility and really should help our baseball program become one of the best in the country.”
Keith would also always ask about my family and how my son was doing in Little League, and of course what we thought about our beloved Red Sox. Every e-mail I ever received from him had a positive vibe. A message of faith, blessings, and even a sense of humor. And of course the obvious love and appreciation for his wife and family. “She has absolutely dedicated her life to me,” Keith wrote. “I get a lot of people telling me what an inspiration I am. But in my eyes, Lynn is the real inspiration in all this. She has shown me what the real definition of marriage and love is all about.”
Keith would never talk about his own success or his overwhelming situation unless I asked him specific questions about how he was doing. And he always thanked me for helping him to spread the word about ALS through the articles we would write together.
“ALS is a very ruthless and unforgiving disease,” he said. “The problem in the ALS world is that there is just not enough funding for research because of the few numbers of cases in America. “A lot of the most extensive research is taking place overseas with stem cell research.”
In March of 2005, Clark-LeClair Stadium was opened at ECU in Raleigh, NC, with the playing of the LeClair Classic Invitational tournament.
The event included an emotional opening tribute that saw Keith and his family at home plate with his son and daughter throwing out the first pitches.
“I have been blessed to be at East Carolina during this battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease,” LeClair wrote. “They also honored the contract I signed right after being diagnosed, which is unheard of these days. When I couldn’t coach anymore, they kept me on as a special assistant. I am very grateful.”
Then on April 11, LeClair received arguably the highest honor for any ball player, when WCU retired his #23 jersey. Fittingly, before a game between WCU and Clemson, with both coaches Leggett and Raleigh in attendance. “First I want to commend the university because it is not an easy decision to retire someone’s number,” coach Leggett said during the pre-game ceremony.
“You are making a statement that says it would be very difficult to fill the shoes and uniform of that player. And in Keith’s case it is definitely the truth. I have had a lot of players in 29 years of coaching, and if you put together an All-Leggett team, Keith would be my captain. That says everything you need to know about Keith LeClair.”
In a prepared statement read by close family friend Chuck Young, LeClair expressed his love and gratitude. “I want to thank everyone who has made this possible, especially coaches Leggett and Raleigh.
“I want everyone to know that I am very honored to be here tonight among former teammates, players, coaches, friends and family. I pray that in years to come when people see this number 23, they will not think of an individual, but a team of unity.”
Keith LeClair’s final coaching record was an impressive 448-231. Numbers that leave you wondering where his obvious coaching and teaching abilities would have taken him.
“Most people are defined by what they do in terms of wins, honors, accomplishments and things like that,” coach Raleigh said when learning of this great loss. But Keith is defined by the way he lived his life.”
For this is not just a story about baseball, it is a story of a man of incredibly strong faith who wore many hats; son, husband, father, friend, role model and teacher.
“I have sat many days and nights and reflected back on my life and began to realize that it is not what you get out of life, but what you can personally give back to the life God blessed you with,” Keith once wrote. “There is one thing that ALS can never take away from me,” he concluded. “And that is my memories and many friends I have met over the years. And more importantly, my relationship with our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Not often does someone come along who effects so many so deeply," coach Leggett stated at the funeral service.
"We all learned much more from him than he learned from us. We'll be passing on Keith's teaching for generations. That's the mark of a great man. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. Sometimes it takes much less."
A man who taught young baseball players how to become men, Keith LeClair packed more success and integrity into his 40 years than most could do in a 100–year lifetime.
Mr. LeClair will truly be missed and never forgotten. His legacy will live on forever.
Contact Message sports editor Joe Milliken at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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