Joe Leotta was a political science major and an amateur photographer. But most of all, he loved Shakespeare.
"He knew practically all of Shakespeare by heart. You throw a line at him and he could identify the play," said Joan Leotta, Joe's mother.
A 2000 Lake Braddock graduate and a member of the theater program, Leotta was in his sophomore year at Virginia Tech when he was hit by a car in front of his dorm, and died five days later, on March 30, 2002. On March 25, shortly after 9 p.m., Joe Leotta had been walking his girlfriend to her car when he stepped out from between two parked cars and was hit. His parents rushed to be at his side, but Joe Leotta never regained consciousness.
"When he died, we wanted to do something to keep his name going," said Joan Leotta. So when a friend from high school set up a Web site for other friends to post memories and comments about Joe Leotta, his parents were surprised at how many people knew and appreciated their son.
"I just read all these comments about how Joe never let anybody down, how somebody didn’t feel like an outsider when he was around, this theme of how he had helped people who otherwise might have been overlooked," said Joan Leotta.
SO THE Leottas solicited donations to create a scholarship fund in their son's memory. The Joe Leotta Scholarship was first awarded in 2003 to a Lake Braddock Theater student.
"(It) allows people to remember him," said R.L. Mirabel, director of the Lake Braddock Theater. Mirabel said Leotta's love for the theater was evident, and he was more than willing to pitch in wherever needed.
"Joe wasn’t the star, even though he had star talent. There were so many other people doing other things. He was just one of the crowd," said Mirabel. "It didn’t matter to him, that was his deal. If it needed to be done, he would do it."
Mirabel recalled in particular casting Leotta into the role of the vampire hunter Van Helsing in a production of "Dracula" his senior year. Leotta played the character with an authentic European accent which came out of left field, according to Mirabel.
"He came out with stuff I never knew he could do, but I needed it."
Joan Leotta said Joe had always loved theater, beginning when he had received a copy of Shakespeare's complete works for his 12th birthday. During the summer of 2001, he traveled to London and saw his favorite play, "King Lear" in the famed Globe Theater.
THE SCHOLARSHIP, which for the past two years has been $300, is given to a theater student who exemplifies Joe Leotta's selfless spirit and love for theater. His parents even requested that first priority be given to students who, like Joe Leotta, didn't plan on majoring in theater in college.
"We’re continuing what Joe liked to do. He liked to help other people. This is a way he continues to help other people," said Joan Leotta.
This year's scholarship recipient was Theresa Meyers, a senior and the business manager of the Lake Braddock theater both her junior and senior years. Mirabel said Meyers was the theater's "MVP" award winner for both her junior and senior years, a rarity. She also helped produce the annual Storybook Theater production this year, along with classmate Adam Ressa. Meyers cast students who weren't in Braddock's spring play into the Storybook Theater production.
"I never knew Joe, but the stories I have heard about him were incredible. It wasn't like he was a big leader, but his character in general, it meant so much that I would be considered as a person like him," said Meyers, who will attend Virginia Tech this fall and study stage management.
"She’s more in the mold of Joe. She’s never had the lead, the glory roles, she’s the rock we needed, when our show’s falling apart at the seams," said Mirabel.
Meyers said while she didn't know it, she and Joe Leotta had the same goal while moving upward in Lake Braddock's theater program.
"The biggest thing for me, and it might sound kind of cliché, is for everyone to fit in and work as a team," she said. "When I was an underclassman, I kind of was intimidated by the upperclassman, and I wasn't sure I would fit in. When I became one, I wanted to make sure (the upperclassmen) knew everyone works together."
Joan Leotta said that the scholarship fund is large enough to last for at least 10 years. This year, the Theater Boosters got into the act, donating $500 to pay for the scholarship, so money from the fund didn't have to be used.
"I’d rather remember him in not such a sad way," said Mirabel. "But I think it’s a fantastic legacy, as the kids grow up and move further away, they’re still going to know that name."