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The Full Emma Experience: Leigh Dean

Leigh Dean ’55 endows student opportunity fund with transformational bequest to Emma Willard.

A curious child whose perspective on the world pushed boundaries in her younger school years, Leigh Dean ’55 came to Emma Willard School in 10th grade and found her place on Mount Ida. “Imagine my delight,” she writes of her experience, “when the questions I asked were not treated as ‘disruptions’ but as interesting ideas worth exploring.” Leigh’s delight in interesting, disruptive ideas forged a life of impact.

While at Emma Willard, Leigh was a committed field hockey player, vocalist in the choir and chorus, and “one of the best, most natural jesters we’ve ever seen” in Revels (according to The Gargoyle). Leading a self-described “rambunctious life,” Leigh’s personal experience with dyslexia spurred her to find new ways to nurture the joy of reading in herself and others. An advocate for the inclusion of all, Leigh’s life after Emma centered around creating books that reflected a variety of lived experiences, being the instigator of deep conversations, and pursuing the centering power of spiritual healing practice.

Of her career, Leigh once explained, “I write books for children, and for some time now I have found my energies channeled towards bringing peoples of differing backgrounds together through the stories that I write.” She would spend a 35+ year career in publishing, working for many years as an editor in the Junior Book Division at McGraw Hill in New York City.

Around the same time that she was writing thoughtful interracial books for children, Leigh was encouraging her beloved Emma Willard community to think more deeply about the issues facing our world. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” she said, “for Emma Willard graduates across the generations to share their ideas and experiences.” The fruit of that labor was a series of alumnae forums in the school magazine in which Leigh engaged the community with prompts on issues like Conservation vs. Pollution, The Student Activist, The Single Parent, Alcoholism and the Alcoholic, and Prison Reform. She sought out alumnae who were doing important work, amplified their voices, and made them a catalyst for meaningful conversations.

A writer, poet, artist, song channeler, and energetic healer, Leigh was also a counselor of people. When she moved from New York City to Seattle, she re-focused her considerable energies on practices that heal. “I channel and focus energy—the energy that is the life force in all matter—and use that energy to bring balance to the people I work with,” she once shared. With a special sensitivity to nature, Leigh felt connected to all manner of growing things. This work led her to conduct healing circles and workshops, and resulted in two additional books written and self-published in her later years.

Throughout her life, Leigh modeled consideration for others. It is no wonder, then, that she made arrangements for her estate to be invested in providing the “full Emma experience” to all students who call her beloved Mount Ida home. Conscious of the inequities that could occur between students who come to Emma with the benefit of a scholarship, Leigh’s hope was that her bequest to the school would allow every student to pursue their passions and make Emma a more equitable environment in which to live and learn. Upon her passing in June of 2022, Leigh’s entire estate was gifted for this purpose as a part of the Infinite Horizon campaign, supporting the priority to strengthen our community.

Students at Emma in the 2023–2024 school year are the first to feel the impact of Leigh’s gift, which more than doubled the available annual resources for the Student Opportunity Fund, providing support for expenses outside of tuition.

With a portion of the Leigh Dean estate going to endow the Student Opportunity Fund and an additional amount to be used as a bridge gift until the endowment begins to draw, the impact was immediate. Select students were notified at the beginning of the school year that
their student opportunity expenses have been covered, without them having to ask. Expenses for things like class rings, experiential learning opportunities, textbooks, prom tickets, commencement attire, yearbooks, weekend activity funds, and funds to travel home would be included. In addition, supplemental funding for college visits and college applications for students who have need was made available.

Dean of Students Shelley Maher has had the privilege of talking with each of the students who will benefit from Leigh’s gift this school year. “It has been such a joyous experience for me to be able to share such news with these students who had no idea about any of it,” she reflects. “Sharing with students that we are going to provide them with funds to be able to return home once during the year has brought tears to some of the students’ eyes.” Shelley calls Leigh’s gift a “dream come true” for those who are working to provide as many opportunities as possible for Emma students.

Leigh’s legacy gift is a fitting denouement to her life story—a pursuit of deep meaning and equity for all that leaves an indelible impression on the student experience.

This piece was written for the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Signature Magazine.