While many set out to fulfill their life's dreams, seeing them all come to fruition is a rarity. Leanna Rosemarie Piver, however, is the exception. In her short life, she saw many of her dreams come true.
Leanna was a Georgia Tech varsity cheerleader and undergraduate student at the Scheller College of Business when she was in a car accident on November 2, 1998, while on her way to practice. She died a week later on November 7. She was only 20 years old. And yet, in those 20 years, she fulfilled her dreams while touching the lives of hundreds of individuals.
"You could talk to anyone, and they'd say with Leanna, where she met a stranger, she left knowing a friend," said Janet Piver, mother to Leanna and her two sisters, Shelly Levengood and Nikki Ake.
This November marked the 25th anniversary of her death. In April, it will be the 50th wedding anniversary of her father, Dave, and mother, Janet. Dave wanted to present Janet with a special anniversary gift, so he sat down and wrote an email to Steve McLaughlin, provost of Georgia Tech, asking for consideration to grant a posthumous Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree to Leanna. He knew it was a long shot, but he pursued it anyway.
After reading his email, the Office of the Provost contacted Jonathan Clarke, then interim dean for the Scheller College of Business.
"I was so moved by the story that I immediately started the process of getting Leanna approved for the posthumous degree," said Clarke.
Leanna's story is woven together by the threads of determination, grit, and kindness. She seemed to be full of excitement and resolve in everything she did from childhood to early adulthood while remaining humble and sensitive to the needs of others.
At her memorial, Janet Piver recalled, a young disabled man approached the family with tears in his eyes. "I didn't want to live," he said. "It was only because of Leanna that I didn't kill myself. I hated myself because I'm not normal, and Leanna was beautiful, but she would have lunch with me, just me."
That was the kind of person Leanna was.
The Early Years
Music was always a part of the Piver family. Leanna became involved in theater and dance, as did her younger sisters. They performed at cultural arts programs at Callaway Gardens and other venues. They each tried out and were accepted into the Atlanta Workshop Players, a non-profit performing arts company dedicated to highlighting social issues through performance to high school students. Leanna and her sisters would go to local schools and deliver a musical interpretation of social events such as racism or bullying.
"I always looked up to Leanna as the ultimate role model. I looked up to her for whatever she did, seeing how hard she worked and her success in making it happen," said Nikki.
Throughout her years at Parkview High School, where she graduated in 1996, she remained active in theater and dance, even competing in regional and national dance competitions. She landed the leading role in the musical "Bye Bye Birdie" in her senior year. She was vice president of the Student Council and Miss Parkview runner-up for two years.
In her early years, her love of performing in theater and dance expanded as she began exploring cheerleading. If there was a single sport she was born to play, it was cheerleading. She participated in middle and high school, and the three sisters were also part of All-Star competitive cheerleading.
Due to her petite size, talent, and tenacity, Leanna became a flyer - the cheerleader who gets lifted into the air. It is often the most sought-after position. Leanna worked competitively to keep the spot throughout her cheering career.
However, despite her drive to succeed, she remained a generous soul. Janet described one practice when another cheerleader took Leanna's place as a flyer. "Driving home, I said, 'Why didn't you fly tonight?' Leanna replied that the other cheerleader had wanted it more. It didn't matter that Leanna had earned it,” Janet said.
Her Time at Georgia Tech
After graduating from Parkview High School, Leanna was invited to attend a Zeta Tau Alpha sorority event at Georgia Tech, even though she was considering other schools. As her father relayed, Leanna came out of the sorority visit beaming and said, "I'm going to go here."
She didn't consider trying out for a slot as a varsity cheerleader at the time. However, that rainy night, she was wearing her Parkview High School cheerleading jacket, which, her dad recollects, she didn't want to wear because she was at Tech and had grown beyond her Parkview High School years. However, by coincidence or divine intervention, a Georgia Tech cheerleading coach was walking by, noticed the jacket, and invited her to try out.
She made the team and, once again, took the role of a flyer. She also remained on the Dean’s List through her years at Tech.
"The year she passed, Georgia Tech's cheerleading squad was in the top 10 programs for cheerleading, and the team came in third in nationals, which was the first time Georgia Tech had ever accomplished this," said Shelly.
Both sisters also attended Tech, as did their husbands, attributing the sense of community and family as just one of the reasons they chose the Institute. As Dave Piver said, "We are deeply devoted to Georgia Tech."
Feeling the Love
Towards the end of Leanna's life, several uncanny events occurred that simply couldn't be explained. It was as if Leanna knew she had accomplished what she needed to do in this life, and it was time for her to take her leave.
The weekend before her accident, she was cheering at an away game in Maryland. Dave, who was in nearby Virginia for business, joined his sister, her husband, and their four boys to watch Leanna cheer. After the game, her cousins wanted to take her out on the town. As some college students do, Leanna had obtained a fake ID, and one of her cousins was quizzing her on who she was supposed to be. He noticed the driver's license stated her persona was an organ donor. Leanna said she'd never considered being an organ donor before but wanted to have that on her license when she returned home.
Since Dave was there, they decided to fly back home together, and her father asked her if she was coming home or returning to Tech after they landed.
"She had had a good time with her cousins and slept most of the flight. I told her if she came home, her mom would make a nice meal, and I'd be able to eat well," he recalled. She decided to come home that night. It would be her last night with her family.
When asked about some of their favorite memories of Leanna, Shelly and Nikki both said it was that last night she spent with the family that they remember most.
"She was at college, so we didn't see her much," said Shelly. "It was so strange. I was in high school. Nikki was in middle school, and we were all doing different things, so it was a night we were all home. The Lion King II had just come out, and we all watched the movie together."
One of their favorite songs from the original movie was "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" and Janet said the song meant a lot to the family.
Nikki and Shelly sang the song at Leanna's memorial service.
A Living Legacy
When Leanna was in Grady Hospital after her accident, hundreds of supporters rallied around the family. There were visits to the hospital from sorority sisters, her cheerleading family, her friends from Parkview, and many others who had been touched by knowing her. One of those who stayed faithfully by her bedside was friend, singer, and songwriter Erik Bennett.
One night, with the family in her room, Bennett told them he needed to leave but promised to return. Hours later, he'd compiled the song " Leanna's Song (I Guess This Is Goodbye)," which later became a video with Bennet singing while photos and short videos of Leanna flashed throughout the video.
In the end, the family made the painful decision to take Leanna off life support. The Lifelink Foundation of Georgia approached the Pivers about organ donation, and after careful consideration, they knew it was what Leanna would have wanted.
Five of her organs were harvested, giving a second life to transplant recipients. Even today, the family is in touch with one of the recipients, who named one of her grandchildren after Leanna. She said she would have never known her family and her granddaughters if it weren't for Leanna.
While Leanna remained in a coma at Grady, David Braine, the athletics director of Georgia Tech from 1997 to 2006, was just one of many visitors, yet played an essential role in establishing a legacy for her at Tech.
"When we were at Grady with Leanna, you'd see him in her room at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. He approached us and said he would like to pursue an endowed scholarship in her memory. It would have been the Institute's first Division 1 cheering scholarship. That's how that started,” explained Dave.
Braine was the catalyst for creating the Georgia Tech Alexander-Tharpe Fund - Leanna Piver Endowment. Now, each year, the cheerleaders chosen for the scholarship receive a stipend, and the Piver family is invited to the presentation of the scholarships.
Dave and Janet also created the Leanna Piver Scholarship Fund for students in drama and cheerleading at Parkview High School.
After Leanna's passing, the Georgia Tech family held two memorial services to accommodate the thousands of people who wanted to commemorate her life. One memorial service was held at a Georgia Tech/Wake Forest game, where she was honored by students, coaches, athletes, staff, and others. Then, Agnes Berardo, Georgia Tech's women's basketball coach at the time, organized another memorial service at a national cheerleading competition. The cheerleaders wore T-shirts with Leanna's picture, and an airplane flew by with a banner - "Good luck, GT. I love you. LRP.”
Remembering and Honoring
"The day after we buried Leanna, Shelly was cheering at a state playoff game, and we went because we knew we had two other beautiful daughters that we had to support. Now, Shelly and Nikki's kids know Aunt Leanna. They keep her memory alive, and in doing so, it helps us all," said Dave.
The Pivers have experienced a tragedy that few can understand. Dave and Janet have continued to support each other as they look forward to celebrating their 50th anniversary in April 2024.
They met through a blind date set up by Dave's mother, a receptionist for an eye doctor Janet was seeing while attending college. Initially, Dave was wary. He was in college, too, and wasn't thinking about settling down. He called Janet anyway, and they arranged to meet at her house. Janet said she knew right away. After their first date, Dave told his mother, "I'm going to marry that girl."
“Dave was always cheering the family along. He spent weekends at his daughters' competitions, something many fathers didn't do. He set the perfect example for our girls when they were choosing their mates. They grew up watching a man who was there throughout everything," said Janet.
When asked what has made their marriage last 50 years, Dave didn't hesitate to answer. “Respect,” he said thoughtfully.
While it describes Janet and Dave’s successful marriage, respect also represents the feelings others have for the Piver family. They’ve faced successes and tragedies gracefully and with immense love for each other. They remain role models to others, particularly those who hear about Leanna’s extraordinary life.
"In their grief and our grief, finding and holding onto the memories have shaped me and how I handle serious situations. Sometimes things happen, and you don't have a choice, but you do have a choice in how you react," said Nikki.
It’s been 25 years since her death, and the family speaks of Leanna as if she were still with them. They smile and laugh when sharing stories about her. They remain proud of their daughter and sister and will continue to keep her memory alive.
For inquiries about the Parkview High School Cheerleading and Thespian Scholarships, email Dave Piver.
Written by Lorrie Burroughs