TAMPA — Lee Bird Leavengood has spent the better part of four decades rushing to class, running meetings and developing programs at the University of South Florida. First she was a volunteer, then a graduate student and, before long, an instructor and administrator. She was the first female named to the USF Foundation, founded the Friends of the Library and a gallery at a contemporary art museum bears the Leavengood name. Leavengood, 87, and her late husband Vic immersed themselves in campus life practically from the moment they arrived in Tampa in 1960.
Volunteering evolved to full-time career as her children grew up. In 1973, while pursuing a master's degree in guidance and counseling, Leavengood told the dean of student affairs he needed to hire her to advise other mature students on the admission process. Thus began her outreach to nontraditional students of all ages continuing their education. From directing the Division of Lifelong Learning in 1981 to establishing the Division of Senior Programs in 1994, (now the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), Leavengood's legacy expanded learning opportunities for thousands of senior citizens and earned her induction into the Hillsborough County Women's Hall of Fame this month.
The fourth-generation Floridian, a former high school May Queen and poet who works out three times a week, reminisced with Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer.
How do you feel when people call you a pioneer, a trailblazer, for managing university work, a family and numerous volunteer commitments? You served as vice chair of Florida's Status of Women Commission under three governors. Do you consider yourself an early feminist?
I don't think of myself as a role model. I was busy with family and volunteering but I realized there was something more I wanted to do. Serving on the state's first Status of Women Commission in the early 1960s was the pivotal point when I knew if I was going to help women get into the labor market, I needed to get more education. It was a learning process for me, too.
I had never worked before but volunteered on a lot of boards … United Way, the chamber of commerce, the Tampa Art Institute, now Tampa Museum of Art. I established three volunteer programs for women that became Friends of the Museum.
I set up a book group at the Tampa Bay History Center. And I didn't get paid for it, but I wrote book reviews for the Tampa Tribune.
I never thought of myself as a feminist. I was just involved in women helping women.
The Leavengood family is well-known for supporting so many institutions. How did you meet your husband and what do you think made the marriage so civic-minded?
When I was a student at Florida State College for Women, now FSU, the University of Florida announced it was taking its first co-ed class. Vic was the assistant dean of students and I had a scholarship to set up a sorority and needed his permission.
We were married 64 years and we both enjoyed doing our part for the community. We never served on the same committees at the same time. One Leavengood is enough. We traveled separate paths but on the same road together.
You've been so successful setting up Senior Net computer training Elderhostel programs, Distinguished Master Artists classes and many, many more programs. Why is learning in retirement important for seniors?
I think it's important for all adults, male and female, to continue to learn throughout their lifetime. My main thread was senior programs led by senior volunteers sharing their interests and knowledge. People who like to learn like to share their learning. I regard the senior programs as one of the richest parts of my life.
More than 15,000 seniors participate and enjoy classes and programs that evolved from the division of senior programs, which I left as it was becoming the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Director Ara Rogers is taking it to heights I never dreamed of. I'm taking two OLLI courses right now, on Emily Dickinson and on the history of churches in Tampa. I am really getting much joy out of them.
Retirement isn't easy, is it? You "retired" as assistant director of the Institute on Aging in June 2003, but continued on as adult education coordinator at the Tampa Bay History Center. What's your secret to staying active?
I retired three times from the university and am now officially retired from the history center. I started late in life and was not ready at the normal age.
Advice? Believe in yourself, and be confident. Do what you can do uniquely, what you enjoy doing and go for it.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.