HUNTINGTON, N.Y. — Ten days after what was supposed to be her wedding day and three days before her burial, Annie Le’s GRD ’13 memory lived again in the small Long Island community where her fiancé grew up.
In an hour-long memorial service filled with palpable sorrow yet punctuated by laughter, Jonathan Widawsky’s friends, family and synagogue community paid tribute to Le and prayed to recover from her loss. In the sanctuary of Temple Beth-El, traditional Hebrew prayers and songs alternated with eulogies from Le’s college friends and Widawsky’s mother and sister, often moving the audience of more than 200 — many of whom had never met Le — to tears.
“This is not easy for us,” said Widawsky’s younger sister Lauren, a senior at Towson University in Maryland. “This was not the plan.”
Addressing a congregation that included a group of Columbia students, a contingent of Yale faculty members and administrators — among them University Secretary and Vice President Linda Lorimer — and local residents, Lauren Widawsky spoke gratefully of Le’s eagerness to “take her on” as a sister, their shared shopping trips and their conversations. In the midst of an otherwise somber eulogy she struggled to finish, she joked that she knew Le and her brother would have a happy marriage when Le allowed Widawsky to give her a haircut.
“What girl would let Jon cut her hair?” she said to widespread laughter.
Though Widawsky, pale and grave in a dark suit, did not speak, his friends told the story of how he and Le met as freshmen at Rochester University, became friends and fell in love.
Their longtime friend Matthew Bonyak remembered Le striking up a conversation with Widawsky — now a graduate student at Columbia — in the lounge of their freshman-year dormitory. With a laptop and notebooks strewn all about her, he said, she impressed Widawsky and Bonyak with her energy and friendliness.
“She was simultaneously studying, shopping and talking to us,” Bonyak said of their first meeting. “And at the end of the night, she kissed us on our foreheads.”
Calling Le “a mouse that roared,” Bonyak described a spunky, driven young woman with a high-pitched voice, a penchant for shoes and an unending affection for all her friends. She constantly worried for everyone she knew but herself, he told the congregation.
In her later years at Rochester, Le would volunteer to proofread her friends’ resumes, personal statements and cover letters as they applied for internships and jobs, recalled Janice Lomibao, who was Le’s best friend and who would have been her maid of honor. Lomibao could not attend the service, but another friend read her remarks aloud.
“Those of us who knew Annie always looked up to her,” Lomibao said. “She would surprise you with candy or a pair of earrings you’d been eyeing for a long time.”
But Bonyak and Lomibao agreed that for all her love for her friends, Le was at her happiest when she was around her fiancé.
The two frequently described their relationship using a phrase from singer Jason Mraz’s song “Lucky” — “lucky I’m in love with my best friend,” Bonyak said.
Widawsky proposed to Le last July after a full day of the couple’s favorite activities, including a walk in the park, a “chocolate dinner” and going to the birthday party of another of their good friends, Bonyak recalled. The two had planned to honeymoon in Greece.
“Theirs was a love to be admired, that’s for sure,” he said.
In the months before they were to be married at the North Ritz Club in Syosset, N.Y., Widawsky began introducing his fiancée to the members of the tight-knit temple community in which he grew up. The Temple Beth-El and Huntington communities, where the Widawskys are known for their warmth and hospitality, were ready to welcome her, temple leaders said.
Though she said she had only spoken to Le a few times, temple cantor Sandra Sherry said she was convinced Widawsky had chosen his partner wisely. They were a young couple, she said, but a compatible pair, with “good values.”
And though Le will never join them for services, her name will be read at shabbat dinners as befits any member of the temple community, Rabbi Jeffrey Clopper told synagogue members.
Before asking the congregation to pause for a moment of silence, Clopper thanked the Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as the Yale, New Haven and state law enforcement officials who worked on Le’s case — a jarring reminder of Le’s gruesome murder in a service that otherwise centered on memories of Le, alive and happy.
“As anybody who knew her would tell you, there was only one Annie Le,” Bonyak said. “She was an experience, and experiences have to be shared.”