A season of sorrow
The campus community and residents of Bloomington-Normal came together during the spring semester to mourn the loss of seven men killed in a plane accident on April 7.
Among those tragically taken were two members of Illinois State’s Athletics department: Deputy Director for External Operations Aaron Leetch, 37; and Torrey Ward, 36, associate head coach for men’s basketball.
They were returning from the NCAA men’s Final Four game in Indianapolis aboard a twin-engine Cessna when the crash occurred during attempts to land in heavy fog. The plane was found in a soybean field near Bloomington’s Central Illinois Regional Airport. The accident drew national attention, and the cause remains under investigation by federal authorities.
There were no survivors among the men described as “Redbird guys” by Athletics Director Larry Lyons ’86. Others aboard were Pub II co-owner Terry Stralow ’74, age 64; Sprint account manager Andy Butler ’96, age 40; investment officer Jason Jones, M.S. ’93, age 45; former ISU student and Eureka Locker Co. owner Scott Bittner, 42; and pilot Thomas Hileman, 51.
“Every school has these guys: donors, fans and supporters who are always there when needed. They were great men and good community partners,” Lyons said. “There is no play in the playbook for times like these.”
President Larry Dietz summarized the reaction of all in a message to campus, saying “words cannot fully express the grief that is felt in the wake of such a tragedy. We move between shock and profound sadness.”
Sorrow was evident throughout the community, including at Pub II. Flowers surrounded the business that has been a favorite campus gathering spot for decades. Tears were shed and comforting hugs shared during a service at Redbird Arena held days prior to individual funerals planned by the families. More flowers, personal expressions of sympathy and ISU gear were left at a memorial created on the arena concourse.
Dietz, Lyons and ISU team chaplain John Rayford spoke at the somber service that comforted student-athletes and the campus as a whole. Hundreds attended to honor Leetch and Ward as exemplary individuals who were also exceptional in their professional roles.
“Aaron Leetch was a shining star in this business. He had a gift in dealing with people and building relationships,” Lyons said. “Our external units were making incredible progress under his leadership.”
A graduate of Tennessee Temple, Leetch completed a master’s at Baylor University. He started in athletics fundraising at that school and went on to Arkansas State prior to initially joining ISU in 2005.
For six years he was a member of Illinois State’s Athletics executive team with direct supervision of department staff in areas of development, marketing, corporate sponsorships and ticket operations. Fundraising totals increased 143 percent under his leadership, with equally impressive growth in average attendance.
Leetch left in 2011 to serve as the director of athletics at Whitworth University in Washington, returning to ISU in 2013. His duties expanded to include supervision of communications and video production for the Redbirds, as well as administrative leadership for men’s and women’s golf and baseball.
He is survived by his parents; his wife, Lindsay; and their daughters, Avery and Emmersen.
Ward was remembered as far more than a coach to members of the men’s basketball team. Players expressed their gratitude for his role in their lives as a mentor and father figure.
“Torrey Ward was a big part of the success taking place with our men’s basketball program,” Lyons said. “He had a big personality, was a talented coach and recruiter, and our fans loved him.”
A former college athlete, Ward played basketball at the University of Alabama at Birmingham while completing a degree in criminal justice sciences. He played professionally in the Chinese Basketball Association for the Shanghai Sharks.
His coaching experience prior to ISU was gained at Jacksonville State and the University of Mississippi. Ward joined Illinois State in 2012. The team achieved a 58-44 record during his three Redbird seasons, including three wins over Top-25 programs. His recruiting prowess helped create the team that scored victories against opponents from the Big Ten, Big East and Southeastern Conference.
He is survived by his mother; fiancé Johnene; and three children, Tamia, Torrey and Audrey.
Among memorial funds chosen by the families is Illinois State Athletics. Gifts can be made at GoRedbirds.com. Support will empower Athletics to carry on with the work that was a passion for those lost.
“As we move forward, we enter a new chapter in Redbird Athletics—one without seven incredible men who made ISU a much better place. There is no way to replace their personalities or their contributions to ISU Athletics,” Lyons said.
“This new chapter provides a special opportunity to pick up where we were before this tragedy and continue to be at our best. It’s what our friends would want. It’s what we owe this community.”