Q&A with Carol O’Loughlin Thompson, widow of Lan O’Loughlin, Committee member of the Lan O’Loughlin Personal Achievement Award

Established by the Watauga High School Booster Club in 2000, the Lan O’Loughlin Personal Achievement Award honors a graduating senior from Watauga High School in Boone, NC. The criteria set up by O’Loughlin himself is that the student is a varsity sport athlete, in good academic standing, plays a noteworthy role in the community, and has a positive role in family relationships.

To mark the fund’s 20-year anniversary with the North Carolina Community Foundation, Donor Engagement Officer Jeanne Dairaghi spoke with Carol O’Loughlin Thompson. Thompson described how this achievement award helps to keep her husband’s legacy alive and shared some of her behind-the-scenes work and dedication to the endowment.   

Tell us more about your family’s history and this endowment.

Lan was a beloved science teacher and coach at Watauga High School for almost 25 years. He began his teaching and coaching career in 1979 at Watauga High School, after swimming and playing water polo competitively at the national level throughout childhood and college at Auburn University. He inspired students in the classroom to always pursue their personal best and supported their every effort with warmth and encouragement.

Lan was not just a teacher or a coach, he was an admired and beloved role model in Watauga County. He was an organizer of the swimming component of the Watauga County Senior Games, a member of the Watauga County Recreational Task Force, and an organizer of community clean-up events with his science classes. He even co-founded Mountain Alliance, a nonprofit after-school organization providing transformative experiences and opportunities for students to lead an empowered, adventurous and service-oriented life. Initially established at Watauga High School, this organization has now expanded to Avery High School. All of this in addition to being a loving father to daughter Leslie and son Eric.

Lan and Carol O'LoughlinIt came as a shock in 2000 when Lan at the young age of 46 was diagnosed with advanced Stage 4 cancer in the liver and given just a few short months to live. Due to his popularity at Watauga High School as a teacher, coach, and mentor to so many students, the Booster Club set up this Personal Achievement Award with Lan himself setting the parameters for the attributes of the recipients.

Beginning in 2001 with support from family, students, athletes, and the community, fundraising efforts began to provide a monetary award with his Personal Achievement Award on an annual basis. Fundraising efforts included a golf tournament, swim-a-thons, and other events initiated by the students and community. The initial award of $500 has now grown to $3,000 in 2023. Since its founding, over $38,000 has been awarded to 26 students.

Tell us about your involvement with NCCF. What started you on the path to establishing this endowment fund?

As the funds for this annual award grew, community members recommended starting an endowment fund with the NC Community Foundation. Instead of annual fundraising efforts, investing the funds has allowed the continuation of the monetary aspect of the award.

As the endowment fund was established, Lan felt that it was important that the award committee included a family member, a teacher, a coach, and two other staff at Watauga High School. High school faculty and staff nominate a student who exemplifies Lan’s qualities: the qualities of personal effort and dedication, and of commitment and self-sacrifice.

What would you say to encourage other community members to get involved in philanthropy?

After Lan’s cancer diagnosis in 2000, the WHS student council hosted the first “Mr. WHS Pageant” to help Lan defray his medical expenses. The pageant was a huge success (and lots of fun and laughs) and became an annual event designed to give back to the Watauga County community.

“Philanthropy can start at any age. Year after year, this pageant has been a wonderful display of students coming together to help others and has collectively raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in its 23-year history. It all goes back to the influence Lan had on the WHS students.”

Encouraging others to get involved in their community is best said in the wording of the award honoring Lan. Along with the Booster Club, Lan set the criteria for his own award which is so eloquently stated as follows: “The Lan O’Loughlin Personal Achievement Award celebrates the quality of the game played and not the score alone. It honors the quality of the study effort and not just the grade. It is a tribute to one’s compassion for others with the knowledge that one of the greatest challenges any of us faces is in living for purposes greater than those that touch only our lives.”

“It is nice to see teens recognized for being positive in their lives through this award, and it helps to keep Lan’s memory alive.”

Lan O'Loughlin coaching Watauga High School swim practice