Service with a smile: The Cassie Wang story

Updated: 2013-06-19T13:33:48Z


The Kansas City Star

Cassie Wang was 6 years old when her father, David, began half-joking that she’d be the first in the family to go to Harvard. He was so proud of his little girl.

“He liked to smile,” Cassie’s mom, Grace, said. “He was always smiling. But when Cassie was born, that’s when he smiled the biggest.”

Cassie, the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the family’s first native-born American, finds it especially poignant now that she’s two months from moving to Cambridge, Mass., and enrolling at the oldest and most revered university in the United States.

“We didn’t even really know what Harvard was back then,” Cassie said. “Everyone just knows the name. Being new in the U.S., it was like a dream, but it really wasn’t even a dream.”

Cassie graduated from Olathe Northwest at the top of her class last month with a 5.0 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale and a 34 on the ACT.

But in Cassie Wang, Harvard is getting more than a scholar.

It is getting a philanthropist whose charitable work has brought her awards and set records, an athlete whose leadership on the golf course and off has earned her accolades and a young woman on a mission to make the world a better place.

“She’s believes in people and the goodness that we all possess,” Olathe Northwest principal Gwen Poss said. “She believes we can do more to make us all better. She really believes that — that we all have gifts and talents to tap, which can help everybody be better.

“She also has a gift for bringing that out of other people. As a principal, I am inspired to do better because of what she is doing. She just has that effect on people. She is a role model for all of us.”

High praise? Absolutely. Unwarranted?

Well, Prudential didn’t think so when it selected Cassie as a Spirit of Community Award winner last month as one of the nation’s top 10 youth volunteers during a banquet at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

The PGA Tour chose her as the 2011 Midwest Section Junior Student-Athlete of the Year.

One year later, the American Junior Golf Association honored Cassie with its 2012 Presidents’ Leadership Award and, in between, she won the Kenneth Smith Award as the top all-around high school golfer in metropolitan Kansas City.

Oh, and Monday, Cassie was back in Washington to be honored as a Presidential Scholar.

That covers the big awards, but Cassie — who was voted Most Inspirational, Best Female Leader, Most Involved, Hardest Female Worker and Best All-Around Female Student by her classmates — doesn’t devote her time and energy to the idea of winning awards.

“Her willingness to serve other people and the way she always wants to help out is the most impressive thing about her,” Ravens golf coach Mardy Ortman said. “Whether it’s the younger kids on the golf course or people at school, she just has a heart for service.”

And it’s no act.

“She really is one of those kids who’s as genuine as they come,” Ravens athletic director Jay Novacek said. “She is who she is and you can certainly tell in everything she does that she’s not doing it for glory or fame or awards. She does it because she truly cares.”

David was that way, too. He never turned away patients at his dental practice because they couldn’t pay.

Grace smiles when she says Cassie reminds her of David.

“When she was a baby, she was a very happy baby and she’s stayed that way as she’s grown up and is a sweet girl to everybody just like her daddy was,” Grace said.

Now, all these years later, her father’s half-joke turned out to be half-right. Cassie is going to Harvard, but her brother, who is older by six years and works in New York City as an investment banker, beat her to the punch.

Sadly, David Wang didn’t live to see either of his children’s dreams fulfilled.

It was chilly, around 55 degrees by Cassie’s recollection, but the Wang family couldn’t resist an outing on Lake Panorama near Panora, Iowa, on Aug. 17, 2002.

While boating on the lake, David spotted a boy nearby in distress. He dove in and rescued the child, but David never resurfaced.

“The water was really cold,” Cassie said. “He saved the little boy, but I think the cold water just put him into shock and he never recovered.”

Witnessing her father drown has left a hole that will never completely refill in Cassie’s heart, but her mother refused to let either of her children be crippled by their father’s death.

“We felt like our whole world crashed,” Grace said. “After he passed away, we would go to his cemetery almost every week to talk to him, but after we would leave I always encouraged them to do what they needed to do.”

The Wangs lived in a thriving Chinese-American community in central Iowa, about an hour’s drive west of Des Moines, where David was a well-known dentist.

He’s still celebrated as a hero there.

The Chinese Association of Iowa established the David Jiajiang Wang Award for Humanity in 2007, the organization’s highest honor, and there’s also a David Wang Memorial 5K during the community’s Panorama Days festivities.

The graveside trips became less frequent when the family moved to Lenexa in 2007, but Cassie and Grace visited David on Memorial Day and his memory remains a fixture within the family.

“On Christmas or Thanksgiving, when we have a family dinner, we still think about him,” Grace said. “We will go to his picture and talk to him, tell him we appreciate him and love him before we eat. We miss him a lot, but the kids are very tough and very positive. They give me strength.”

The golf course is where Cassie feels closest to her dad. Perhaps that is why she’s so devoted to practice, spending untold hours at the driving range and then putting until dark.

Cassie can’t remember how many times she turned down the chance to catch a movie or hang out with friends and instead drove from Falcon Ridge Golf Club when it closed at dusk to the Golf Club of Kansas, where she could keep practicing her putting under the lights until 10.

“Sometimes I would pull all-nighters for school, because I played until dark,” Cassie said. “Golf has always been a way that my dad’s memory lives on through our family. Especially when I’m on the golf course, I think about how life would be if he were still here.”

Cassie was 4 years old when she first starting tagging along as David and Tony hit the links.

Her father and brother would whack balls from a tee before dropping Cassie off 100 yards from the green, where she’d take her turn whacking the ball toward the green.

Of course, back then she used plastic clubs before David bought her a Snoopy driver when she was 6 and enrolled Cassie in her first golf lessons.

Gradually, David inched Cassie back toward the tee box as she got bigger and her game got better.

When David died, golf became an emotional release for Cassie.

“I consider it the way that his spirit lives on,” she said.

Cassie discovered she had a talent for the game as well and by the time she entered high school had molded herself into one of the top golfers in metropolitan Kansas City.

Cassie placed in the top 10 at the Kansas Class 6A state tournament all four years — finishing fifth as a freshman, fourth as a sophomore and junior and ninth as a senior despite playing only half the season in an effort to concentrate on academics as she chased her Harvard dream.

She desperately wanted to win the state championship, which is perhaps the only unfulfilled dream from her Olathe Northwest career.

Her junior year, Cassie had the lead going to the final hole before a bad bounce on her approach shot cost her two strokes and ultimately the gold medal.

The tears came easy that day, but she pulled herself together in time to win a playoff for fourth place.

Still, if there’s one area of Cassie’s life where her drive and passion can bubble over into frustration, it’s the golf course. (Anyone who plays the game probably can relate.)

“One of the few times she didn’t win a golf tournament when I was out watching her, I walked up to her to tell her ‘Keep your head up’ or whatever,” Novacek said. “She was kind of mad and stomped off.”

When Novacek arrived at his office the next day, he found Cassie already there. To apologize.

“Actually, it was good to see that she did have a little spark of anger,” Novacek said. “I told her, ‘Cassie, I’m glad to see that you get mad every once in a while. I was starting to worry you were a robot.’ She’s always smiling or happy. That’s just who she is.”

There were tears after state her senior year, but again Cassie didn’t let that sadness linger.

“She had come so close the last three years and really wanted to win,” Ortman said. “Part of that was also the realization that it was over I’m sure, but five minutes later she was up and congratulating everybody. She was right back to being Cassie and was genuinely happy for (Ravens teammate) Audrey (Judd) that she won.”

Golf also helped Cassie carry on her dad’s legacy of self-sacrifice.

Passing tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., on the way to a tournament two years ago, Cassie felt a powerful tug to make a difference.

“It was two or three weeks after the tornado hit,” Cassie said. “Here I am going to national golf tournaments, but the whole time I was playing that weekend I couldn’t get Joplin out of my mind. I don’t remember much about that tournament, because I was so shaken up.”

The image of leveled homes and empty lots where families once gathered around the dinner table and children once played in yards haunted Cassie, so she started a Birdies for Charity campaign with assistance from the American Junior Golf Association’s Leadership Links program.

With support from her home course, Falcon Ridge Golf Club, Cassie raised more $1,000 that summer but decided that wasn’t enough, so she started the Youth Hope Fund, a student-run nonprofit that provides disaster relief.

“Golf was done, but there was a feeling of guilt like, ‘Am I really done or can I keep going?’” Cassie said. “The Youth Hope Fund has allowed me to make more of an impact. I’ve been able to network more.”

Now, the Youth Hope Fund has 30 members, mostly fellow high school students from the Blue Valley district or Pembroke Hill, and has raised nearly $18,000.

Through the Youth Hope Fund, Cassie continues to provide support for rebuilding Joplin and now the charity is weighing different service projects to benefit the people affected by the tornadoes in Moore, Okla.

To hear her tell it, Cassie was terrified nobody would attend the first meeting after she formed her charity, but a handful of fellow students showed up, including some from different schools who wanted to lend a hand as word of Cassie’s crusade quickly spread.

It has continued to grow with Cassie as president, a post she will step down from when she leaves for Harvard. She will remain a board member.

Most of the money comes from corporate donations, but Cassie scrimps for every nickel and dime to aid her cause.

There have been bake sales and car washes, virtual car washes hawking discounted gift cards to Speedy Car Wash and fund-raisers at Worlds of Fun.

“We do a lot of things to raise money,” Cassie said. “We even started a neighborhood leaf-raking service in the fall. It sounds weird, but it was a good money-generator. We went around to Mission Hills, where they have a lot of trees around the houses, and people basically pay us to rake their leaves. They were going to pay someone to do it anyway, but we needed the money and it goes to a good cause.”

There’s so much else Cassie Wang does.

She is an accomplished piano player and dancer who spent two seasons with Olathe Northwest’s nationally competitive dance squad. She also sang with the Da Capo choir, the school’s top auditioning ensemble.

She co-led the Principal’s Advisory Committee with Poss and served as a Link Crew leader, helping incoming students adjust and find a niche at Olathe Northwest.

She organized service trips to Harvester’s and led record-setting blood drives for the Community Blood Center.

Last year, thanks to Cassie’s prodding and pleading, Olathe Northwest collected more units of blood than any school in Kansas City history — 511 units, including 256 during the spring blood drive.

“I was so scared we were not going to set the record,” Cassie said. “We had rescheduled it and a lot of people forgot their appointment or forgot to sign up. That was a crazy day. We had like 10 minutes left and I was going around the halls in tears asking people to donate blood.

“I made it mandatory for all student council members to go and donate. I was in human vampire mode, like ‘We want your blood.’ It was crazy. I think there were just as many tears before we set the record out of fright as there were tears after out of joy,” she said.

Novacek remembers watching Cassie walking through the lunch room in a blood-drop mascot suit, waxing eloquently about the importance of donating blood and the lives that could be saved.

He turned to another assistant principal, Greg Smith, and said, “She has got to be the only kid that’s going to be at Harvard next year who is willing to dress up in a blood-drop costume and badger her classmates to donate blood.”

Anything for a worthy cause.

“She doesn’t mind making a fool out of herself,” Novacek said. “She’s just all about doing what’s right and what’s making life better for others.”

Cassie was just as helpful when it came to more serious and somber causes.

“A year ago, one of our former students was killed in Afghanistan,” Novacek recalled. “Cassie was there at 5:50 in the morning with me putting out American flags so when the funeral procession went by Olathe Northwest, College Boulevard was lined with flags every six feet from Ridgeview to Lone Elm. That’s just the kind of kid she is. She didn’t have to be there. She didn’t know Cale Miller, the young man who passed away, but he was a former Olathe Northwest student and it was important to her.”

When English teacher and the school’s National Honor Society director Angie Hedges’ house burned down a few weeks before Christmas, Cassie spearheaded a fund-raiser to replace the family’s Christmas presents.

She also helped drum up donations when another Olathe Northwest faculty member, Rosa Adams-Bussard, was injured in a car accident so severely that she required a wheelchair.

When Ortman endured a difficult pregnancy, which forced her into early maternity leave and confined her to bed, Cassie texted her English teacher and golf coach frequently to check up on her.

When Ravens boys basketball coach Mike Grove’s daughter, Mary, died suddenly in late January, Cassie incorporated a fund-raising component in the school’s annual Mr. Raven Pageant and directed all proceeds to the Mary Grove Scholarship Fund.

“We’ve been open now for a decade and I’ve been here since the start (at Olathe Northwest),” Novacek said. “Cassie is one of the top students that’s ever walked through these doors and she’s one of the highest-caliber kids that’s ever come out of here.”

David grew up in Hainan, an island off the coast of southern China, and his wife, Grace, was from Guangzhou, the provincial capital and largest city in Guangdong.

After college, the couple had a son, Anthony, then emigrated from China during the early 1990s and settled in Iowa, where Cassie was born a few years later.

David and Grace might not have known Harvard by more than reputation, but they knew they wanted the best for their precocious daughter.

“When I was China, even when I was very young, we knew that Harvard was the top university of the world,” Grace said. “It was a dream. At that time, we didn’t think we could reach that dream. David and I went to top colleges in China, but Harvard seemed so far away.”

As the years went by, Cassie, who remains fluent in Mandarin, came to share her dad’s dream of attending Harvard, striving to make his bold prediction come true.

“No one banks on getting into Harvard,” Cassie said. “They have a 5 percent acceptance rate, so it was still just like a joke. Coming to America was a huge deal already and was way bigger than Harvard ever seemed.”

As Cassie’s high school career wound down, and as she nervously awaited a fateful email from Harvard admissions, she came across a childhood journal.

“I had just taken the Iowa Test of Basic Skills or something,” Cassie recalled. “I wrote that I got a 90-something percent and then it said, ‘My daddy wants me to go to Harvard and so does my mom, but I don’t know.’”

Admissions letters are a thing of the past, so Cassie didn’t run to the mailbox every day hoping for a letter from Harvard. Instead, she was sitting at her computer with her mom Dec. 13. Tony was there too via Skype.

She’d seen several people on Twitter posting about getting accepted earlier in the day, so Cassie was a nervous wreck, worried that she should already know if she was Harvard-bound or heading to Brown, which she had settled on as a backup plan.

Finally, the email arrived. The joyful tears weren’t far behind.

“I never really had that high of hopes I would actually get in, but I definitely thought about it and thought about my dad predicting it,” Cassie said. “One of the first things my mom said when I got the email was that my dad would be so proud.

“Not like it’s a prophecy or anything, but it’s crazy to think as a 6- or 7-year-old I was writing that and not even really knowing what Harvard really was. I didn’t know where it was or anything about, but now I’m actually going there.”

The Harvard phase of Cassie’s life officially begins Aug. 26.

“I think it will also be a very humbling experience meeting people who have done some amazing things and are very accomplished for their age,” Cassie said. “Getting to know them, meet them and hopefully work with them, I think I’ll grow a lot being surrounded by those people.”

Harvard and and her new classmates are certain to be enriched by her presence as well.

“It’ll be no competition,” Poss said. “They won’t be able to keep up with her at Harvard. She’ll be the role model there as well.”

Somewhere, that has to make David smile.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/todpalmer.

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