Lela Justeen Burney was a classic all-American girl. She was athletic, smart and faithful. However, her friends and family remember her goofiness and spontaneity more than her many accomplishments.
The East Texas native loved her hometown, Tatum, and the people in it more than anything. Lela came to Texas A&M in the fall of 2019 to study kinesiology and education in the hopes that one day she would return to Tatum to be a coach and high school teacher. Her mother, Andria Tovar, said she wanted to give back to the town that had given her so much. Tatum remembers Lela through their hashtag devoted to her, #LeadandLoveLikeLela.
Cheerleading, softball and volleyball were huge parts of Lela’s life. Aside from participating in each sport at her high school, Lela coached club cheerleading and volleyball. Tovar fondly remembered how Lela cared about the younger girls. She recounted a time after a camp that Lela set aside taking pictures with her friends to spend more time with the younger campers.
“While everybody else was out there taking pictures with their friends, Lela was out there taking pictures with all the younger kids,” Tovar said. “A lot of the younger girls looked up to her and she was their role model.”
When she was younger, Lela made a pact with two of her best friends that they would attend A&M together one day. Although she lost one of those friends, Lela kept her pact and attended their dream school with enough spirit and enthusiasm for the both of them. Tovar said Lela cared deeply about her friends and family, and always made sure they felt loved.
“In our community in Tatum, we’ve lost several kids to car accidents in the last four years,” Tovar said. “As soon as she heard about it, she wanted to run to be at their family’s side or with their friends. Her connections and her friendships and her family were very important to her.”
Lela cultivated many deep friendships. Her mother noted that no one ever considered Lela an acquaintance, as she was everyone’s best friend.
Lela and her roommate, allied health freshman Emily Liedtke, were friends from competitive cheerleading in high school. Liedtke said the two of them spent nearly every moment together during the fall semester. From getting Chick-fil-a between classes to movie nights to just hanging out at home, Lela was always there to put a smile on her face.
“In the mornings if I was asleep or even if I was taking a shower or something, she would just walk in there just so happy, no matter how early it was,” Liedtke said. “She would walk in there so happy and just talking my ear off. That’s how we got so close, we were just constantly together even at home.”
The two roommates made quick friends with political science freshman Daniel Mancha and his roommate, Adrian Avita.
“[Lela] would just say ‘Hey, do you want to go to Daniel and Adrian’s?’” Liedtke said. “Half the time they didn’t even know we were coming, we would just show up, and eat all their cereal and drink all their water.”
Mancha didn’t know Lela before college, but he said the two of them grew very close. Mancha described Lela similarly to the way the rest of her friends and family described her: always going 100 miles per hour.
“Everytime we would call or text, she was working, doing something, she was grocery shopping with Emily, she was watching a movie, they were just doing some of the dumbest stuff you could imagine,” Mancha said. “It was so random. It was always just random with her, but that’s what made her so compassionate and such a vibrant person.”
Reflecting on their time with Lela left her friends with smiles on their faces.
“She was always trying to make jokes, but she wasn’t ever really that funny,” Tovar said. “She would do silly things trying to make people laugh.”