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NORMAL — Aaron Leetch loved working at Illinois State so much he couldn’t resist returning for a second stint with the Redbirds.

Leetch, ISU assistant basketball coach Torrey Ward and five others were killed early Tuesday morning in an airplane crash near the Central Illinois Regional Airport. The plane was returning from a trip to the NCAA basketball national title game in Indianapolis.

“Aaron Leetch was a shining star in this business,” ISU director of athletics Larry Lyons said in a statement. “He had a gift in dealing with people and building relationships."

The 37-year-old Leetch, who was deputy director of athletics/external operations, was first hired by ISU in 2005 as associate athletic director for development. He was named associate athletic director for external affairs in 2007 and earned the title of senior associate in 2008.

“Aaron was my first hire at ISU. Tremendous person,” said former ISU director of athletics Sheahon Zenger, who currently holds the same position at Kansas. “He had one of the highest characters I’ve ever met in our profession. He was refreshingly honest and forthright, kind and loyal.”

In 2011, Leetch left ISU to become director of athletics at Division III Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. Under Leetch’s leadership, the Pirates won 12 conference championships.

“We’re kind of stunned,” said Whitworth associate athletic director Jo Ann Wagstaff. “I had the privilege of chairing the search committee when we hired Aaron. He had a passion for the Whitworth mission. While he was here, he made quite an impact.”

Leetch returned to the Redbirds in June of 2013.

“I was so excited when he came back,” said Rick Percy Jr., a Weisbecker Scholarship Fund member. “They were bringing back a good friend and a quality person.

“He was so good for the university. He knew how to talk to people and relate to them. He was wonderful at what he did.”

A 1999 graduate of Tennessee Temple, Leetch leaves behind his wife, Lindsay, and daughters Avery and Emmersen.

Follow Randy Reinhardt on Twitter: @pg_reinhardt

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