They were always a welcome sight on the Wright State campus. Beautiful, dark-haired Samantha Laux and her adorable Golden Retriever service dog, Dylan. They left a permanent handprint—and pawprint—on the hearts of everyone they met.
“She pulled me out of being a hermit,” said Wright State student Megan Goettemoeller. “I didn’t hang out with other people. I went to class, got done with class, and came back to my room.”
Neighbors in Hamilton Hall, Megan and Samantha shared a friendship and the daily challenges of living with a disability. While both women were familiar with using a wheelchair for transportation, Samantha opened up a whole other world for Megan to explore.
Since a neurological condition—neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2)—had left Samantha blind, deaf, and unable to walk, Megan learned American Sign Language to better communicate with her friend. Samantha also influenced Megan’s future career aspirations. “I wasn’t sure what kind of a social worker I wanted to be,” Megan explained. “But Sam inspired me to become a social worker that helps people with disabilities.”
Making an impact
While Samantha began losing some of her vision at age 4, she wasn’t diagnosed with NF2 until she was 15. Her family regards the late diagnosis as a blessing in disguise. As Samantha’s mother, Gail Laux, explained, “We would have bubble wrapped her and she wouldn’t have done half of what she did.”
When it came time for Samantha to go to college, she and her family began looking into schools that were highly regarded for their accessibility.
“I’d have to say that the biggest selling point for Wright State was the tunnels,” said Gail.
“Sam was still walking at that point, and she was not going to have somebody help her walk to class. The tunnels allowed her to navigate the campus without assistance.”
With her usual steely determination, Samantha began life as an independent college student. By Winter Quarter of her freshman year, Samantha had welcomed a new friend on her journey—the always lovable but rambunctious Dylan. The four-legged furball originally served as a balance dog, but when Samantha ended up in a wheelchair after a bad fall, Dylan began helping with her other needs as well.
For the Laux family, Dylan’s energetic nature was a constant reminder that he needed regular exercise. Since Samantha couldn’t see where Dylan was once she let him off his leash, she required a fenced-in area where she could let Dylan run.
Having a special place where the service animals of students could unwind was also becoming a priority for Jeff Vernooy, director of Wright State’s Office of Diasability Services. After witnessing several service dogs get into fights outside his office, Vernooy met with students and posed the question: What can we do to make this a better atmosphere for service dog owners?
When the students suggested a dog park, the pieces began falling into place. After the university secured grants from the Kenneth Scott Charitable Trust of Ohio and the Laura J. Niles Foundation of New England, Gail Laux approached the Wallis Foundation in California, where her cousin, Beth, serves as president.
The Wallis Foundation provided the lead gift to name the Wingerd Service Dog Park in honor of Samantha and Dylan. (Wingerd is Gail’s maiden name.) When the Wingerd Service Dog Park was dedicated on October 4, 2008, it became the first dog park on a university campus built specifically for the service dogs of students.
Leaving a legacy
In the months leading up to her passing, Samantha’s Wright State friends knew they wanted to do something in her honor.
“I thought how happy she would be to see other students with disabilities succeed in attaining their dreams,” said Zach Holler, a 2012 Wright State graduate. “That is when the scholarship idea surfaced in my head.”
Zach, who was then serving as president of the student organization, Abilities United, helped to establish the Samantha J. Laux Scholarship. More than $30,000 has been raised for the scholarship since it was created in early 2012.
Alex Woodall is the first recipient of the scholarship bearing Samantha’s name. While he never had the opportunity to meet Samantha, Alex discovered many commonalities after learning about Samantha from her family and friends. Like Samantha and Dylan, Alex is experiencing college with his service dog, Carlos. “It’s hard to imagine life without Carlos,” said Alex, who uses a wheelchair. “I don’t know how I would do it without him.”
Touched by Samantha’s story of courage and optimism, Alex says Samantha has inspired him to go out and meet new people. “If I’m able to show the world that I can accept other people for who they are, then they will, hopefully, accept me for who I am,” he explained.
It’s been more than one year since her passing, but the spirit of Samantha Laux is just as strong as when she was a student on the Wright State campus. It lives on in the people who knew her best—her family and friends—and in the scholarship that bears her name.
Every week after Mass, Megan Goettemoeller leaves the Campus Ministry building and heads to the nearby Wingerd Service Dog Park. There, she sits and reminisces about her dear friend, Samantha. “She will never be forgotten,” said Megan. “I still think about her every day.”
Remembering her beloved daughter, Gail Laux said, “When you met Sam, there was nothing broken about her. She probably was the most whole, had-it-together person out of any of us.”