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Brave and kind, she touched many lives

Leanne Rowan never noticed the stares, the kind that tear at a mother's heart. Cruel reminders of genetic mysteries that leave some babies defective and forever vulnerable.

On this afternoon at the Kash n' Karry, Leanne playfully went about her routine, cashing the check she got from her job at Taco Bell in New Port Richey. She didn't notice the four boys with their Mohawk haircuts, tattoos and multiple body ornaments, but they made everyone else terribly uncomfortable.

They did more than stare. They joked about Leanne's appearance _ loud enough for others to hear. Finally, Leanne noticed them. And though she could not string together words to complete sentences, she needed only one to communicate her thoughts and to break the tension.

"Halloween?" she asked the boys.

"Everybody cracked up," recalled her mother, Karen Rowan. "She was completely innocent. She thought they were going to a Halloween party. People cheered as the boys took off."

Thursday afternoon, Mrs. Rowan gazed from her dining room to the backyard garden where just a week earlier Leanne had planted marigolds with her father, Bill. The sprouts were already pushing through the soil, and he cried as he described the joy they had shared kneeling in the dirt, shooing away her mischievous gray schnauzer, Annie.

"My faith tells me there are no disabled angels in heaven," said Mrs. Rowan, a secretary at one of the Pasco school district's transportation centers. "I have a vision that when she crossed the line into heaven, all the beauty that was inside came to the surface."

On the day Leanne had planted seeds, she also suddenly died. In her 28 years, death had always loomed, especially in the first days in a Brooklyn hospital when doctors said her defects were so profound she could not be expected to survive more than six months.

But because Leanne was a fighter, and because she was born to parents and grandparents who loved her and gave her freedom to experience at least some independence, she blossomed into something extraordinary. And on the day of her funeral, before any published obituary, more than 300 people showed up at the First Baptist Church in New Port Richey.

Her parents were stunned, not so much by the number of mourners but by the fact that they did not know half of them.

"It demonstrated that Leanne had achieved her own independence and identity," her mother said. "For someone who had so much trouble communicating, she sure reached a lot of people."

Leanne reached them in many ways, including at her job at Taco Bell where recently she learned how to make cheese pizzas because the restaurant opened in a new building with Pizza Hut and KFC. For the memorial service, folks from the restaurant sent over flowers for "Sparky," and the Rowans were mystified because they had never heard the nickname.

"Oh, yeah," said Tina Hanley, the assistant manager. "We called her Sparky because she was energized. She was always so eager to please, and she didn't have any trouble communicating. The customers loved her."

Only a few weeks ago, the Rowans were having dinner at the new Ruby Tuesday on Ridge Road and Leanne was wearing the sapphire-and-diamond earrings somebody had given her. Mrs. Rowan was suspicious of the expensive gift, unsure of intentions, but she wasn't about to tell her adult daughter she couldn't wear them.

"And just like that, out of the blue, I hear a woman say, "Look! She's wearing them! Aren't they beautiful?' It was the woman who had given Leanne the earrings. She was a customer who just liked Leanne."

People knew Leanne from Special Olympics, where she won medals for throwing a softball and for racing, even though she had the tiniest of feet, which often ached like the rest of her body.

They knew her from the days she helped her father campaign for Pasco County sheriff in 1988 and 1992. A longtime police officer, he came close but now works as an investigator for the county property appraiser.

They knew her from Community Hospital, where she helped in the kitchen as part of a job training program for the educable mentally handicapped and, of course, from local bowling alleys, where she was a regular. Her scoring average was a respectable 100.

"A lot of the people she knew asked us what they could do for us after she died," Bill Rowan said. "I told them by accepting Leanne the way she was, they didn't have to do anything. They made a difference when it counted."

Leanne saw several of those people on her final day. It was perfect, her mother said, because she got to do all of her favorite things: go bowling, go out to eat, get ice cream and talk to her best friend in the whole world: Mike Ortaliz. They had been inseparable since grade school.

At 9 p.m., she did what she always did about that time of night: crawled into bed to watch television. But soon she came to the living room, complaining of a headache.

"Head hurt," she said. "Baaaaaad."

She collapsed in her father's arms and began hemorrhaging from an aneurysm. She died in less than five minutes.

The sympathy cards were stacked high on the dining room table a week later, and the Rowans let the answering machine screen their calls. They lovingly saved the ones from Mikey: "Hi Leanne. This is your best friend Mikey."

At the Valentine's Day dance for the "special kids" last month, Mikey and Leanne had slow-danced the night away. "They were so cute together," recalled Debbie Wichmanowski, who taught them for seven years. "We had pink lights and pink and white balloons that formed an archway. I took their photograph standing in the arch."

They were looking forward to the St. Patrick's Day dance, which on Friday night became a memorial for Leanne. Teachers put together a memory board with photographs of Leanne doing some of her favorite things. The disc jockey played Nat King Cole's Unforgettable. There was much crying, so Mrs. Wichmanowski decided they needed something to pick them up, something that Leanne would have liked as well. They played Shout!, and everyone danced.

Except Mikey. Said his teacher: "He just seemed so lost."

Late last week, the Rowans sought to find ways to thank the people who had meant so much to Leanne. She was a "watchaholic," her dad said, meaning she left behind more than 50 watches. Some will go to special people, like Tom Dobies, the funeral home director who donated his services, and Mrs. Wichmanowski.

"Wonderful people like Debbie Wichmanowski recognize the value of getting mentally handicapped people into the mainstream," Rowan said. "Then others can see what we have learned in the last 28 years _ that these people are lovable and smart. That you can put them to work and give them a chance to have some sort of normal life."

For that, the Rowans saved a special gift for the teacher. A perfect symbol.

Often, Rowan would take his daughter fishing or in search of treasure with a metal detector. One day, they scanned the shallows at Hudson Beach and found a chunk that, when cleaned up, turned out to be an angel.

One wing was broken off.

_ Bill Stevens is the Times' North Suncoast editor.

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