Activist Dena Gross Leavengood preferred to dance but never backed away from a political fight

She was one of the area’s foremost activists on women’s and refugee rights, the environment, indigent health care and gun safety.
Dena Gross Leavengood and Steve Denison dance at a Woodstock tribute concert at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
[Amy Scherzer]
Dena Gross Leavengood and Steve Denison dance at a Woodstock tribute concert at the Florida Holocaust Museum. [Amy Scherzer]
Published August 13
Updated August 13

TAMPA — She could have ignored the question or been diplomatic when answering, but that was never Dena Gross Leavengood’s style, said her ex-husband Hansel Leavengood.

It was the mid-1970s, he said, and Ms. Leavengood was applying to the University of Florida's College of Veterinary Medicine post-graduate program.

"The all-male panel asked what a small thing like her would do to handle a large animal," he said with a laugh. "She told them she'd get big dumb men to handle it. That's probably why she didn't get in. She was never one to back down."

Former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena describes Ms. Leavengood as tenacious. Friend Diane Egner called her a pit bull.

Those characteristics were among many that made Ms. Leavengood one of the area's foremost activists on issues spanning women's and refugee rights, the environment, indigent health care and gun safety.

She died on August 8 of septicemia, a bloodstream infection. She was 65.

"Dena lived her convictions while most of us just have good intentions," said friend and longtime Tampa Bay Times columnist Amy Scherzer. "She acted, committed, motivated, followed through."

Still, "she'd rather dance than fight," said Scherzer, who last saw Ms. Leavengood in June, dressed in tie-dye at a Woodstock tribute concert at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.

But Ms. Leavengood, who served in leadership roles for organizations including the League of Women Voters and the Sierra Club, never could walk away from a political fight.

"She was absolutely dependable as an advocate for a position," said Saul-Sena, a friend of Leavengood’s. "If you had her support on an issue it meant a great deal because she put such energy into making that issue a success."

Ms. Leavengood was one of the first local activists to harness the Internet by amassing an email list. Starting more than two decades ago, she would blast out numerous issue-oriented emails a week.

And when a local city council or county commission meeting discussed a topic about which she was passionate, Ms. Leavengood made sure to show and speak up.

She is credited with helping to stop the proposed elimination of Hillsborough County's indigent healthcare program. In recent years, she assisted Syrian refugees resettling in the area.

As part of the grass-roots organization Tomorrow Matters, Ms. Leavengood focused on sustainable growth for the area.

"Her slogan was W1, LU2 and TR3," said real estate attorney Ron Weaver, a co-founder of the group. "Water first, Land Use second and Transportation third. That is how you design your community thoughtfully, she'd say. She spoke truth to power. She was a force of nature."

On behalf of the League of Women Voters, Ms. Leavengood was scheduled to speak out last week against the city of Tampa's "toilet to tap" initiative at the weekly Cafe Con Tampa community forum. She felt it could jeopardize the local water supply.

"Dena was a mentor to me on water and environmental issues for almost 30 years," forum founder and Tampa City Councilman Bill Carlson said. "In her memory we need to make sure that we are mindful of the health, environmental and fiscal impacts of policy proposals like this."

Ms. Leavengood's final Facebook post advocated for gun control, Egner said. "Dena was the most committed, hardest-working community organizer in Tampa Bay."

Ms. Leavengood was raised in rural Sarasota by a cowboy dad and an artist mom, according to Times archives, and her grandmother once stopped a beach development by lying down in front of a bulldozer.

As a high schooler, her brother Aaron Gross said, Ms. Leavengood became the youngest member of the environmental group Save Our Bays.

"She was always passionate about saving the environment," he said.

Ms. Leavengood went on to study zoology, earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Florida and master's from the University of South Florida.

She later was a driving force as a volunteer to bring the Florida Aquarium to the city in 1995. For her efforts, Ms. Leavengood became one of the aquarium's first full-time employees. Among her positions while working there in the 1990s were director of educational outreach and the facility's community liaison.

"When long-time employees of The Florida Aquarium remember Dena, it is always as a maternal protector," aquarium CEO Roger Germann said. "Many credit her influence and guidance as a driving source of inspiration for their careers at the aquarium. This is a terrible loss for the conservation community. She will be deeply missed."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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