At the heart of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation is a very basic commitment to compassion and community, as well as a sense of duty about helping others.
“Well, very simply, if you have some available help [to give], there’s no use in you not giving to someone who needs it,” Dorothy Leavey told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “But it’s been easy for me to help somebody else. I come from a very generous family in the first place. Whenever they have an opportunity to help someone, they have done that.”
Since its founding in 1952, the California-based Leavey Foundation has donated more than $200 million to educational, medical and Catholic institutions.
Here is a short list of the beneficiaries of that generosity: the Archdiocese of Los Angeles; the Assistance League in Hollywood; Aunt Bee’s Laundry Service for People with AIDS; California 4-H Foundation; the California Hospital Medical Center; Childhelp; Children’s Hospital Los Angeles; Georgetown, Loyola Marymount, and Santa Clara Universities; Homeboy Industries; the Lincoln Training Center in South El Monte; the Los Angeles County Music Center; Loyola, Marymount and Sacred Heart of Mary High Schools; Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD); Para los Ninos; the Right to Life League of Southern California; St. John’s Hospital; St. Paul the Apostle Church; Sisters of Nazareth of Los Angeles; the United Negro College Fund; and the University of Southern California.
The foresight and sense of mission that drive such wide-ranging philanthropy were also evident in 1977 with the creation of the Leavey Awards for Excellence in Private Enterprise Education. The prizes, which are administered by Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, honor teachers at all levels – elementary, middle and high schools, as well as college – who inspire their students to understand and appreciate the benefits of entrepreneurship and the free enterprise system.
The awards serve an immediate need in celebrating the excellent work of educators – with almost $4 million awarded to more than 600 teachers over the last 41 years. But, as with much of the Leavey Foundation’s good works, there is an even greater societal impact. By recognizing the value of free enterprise and inspiring others to succeed as entrepreneurs, the awards ensure that future generations of Americans can not only thrive through their own creativity and efforts – just as the Leavey family has – but will also, in turn, use the fruits of their hard-earned labors to benefit their communities.
Thomas Leavey was born in Humboldt County, California, in 1897. He was the third of three sons born to Irish immigrants Michael and Rose Leavey. Thomas’ mother passed away just weeks after his birth. Thomas grew up on the family dairy farm and, like his older brothers, attended a one-room schoolhouse. He was a high school football player, president of his senior class, and a member of the local forerunner of the 4-H Club. Thomas also showed an early entrepreneurial spirit – he and his teenage partners turned a small profit organizing dances in a nearby lumber company’s abandoned cookhouse in 1915.
His family saw his potential and encouraged him to attend Santa Clara University in early 1918. “I was very fortunate in that my father and two older brothers were anxious to see me get a college education,” he later wrote, “and they supplied me with the much-needed funds during a good part of the two-year period that I was in Santa Clara, starting just before World War I ended.”
After several terms at Santa Clara, interrupted by a stint as a U.S. Army second lieutenant in the closing months of World War I, Thomas traveled to the nation’s capital to attend the Georgetown University School of Law. Upon graduation in 1923, the esteem in which he was held by his peers was reflected in the school’s annual: “His personality is magnetic, his character as sturdy as the famous redwoods of his native State. … In the study of law, as in all other under-takings, he has applied himself with keen intellect and arduous determination.”
These qualities would serve him well upon his return to California, where a series of jobs led to him moving away from the practice of law to a successful career in business. In 1928, Thomas and his partner John C. Tyler founded Farmers Insurance Group in a one-room office in downtown Los Angeles. The firm was designed to provide preferred rates for farmers and ranchers whose vehicles experienced fewer risks. As the company notes on its web site today, “Farmers is one of the very few to start in business only one year before the greatest economic depression in American history and still survive to become a household name.”
Around the same time, Thomas met the Nebraska-born Dorothy Risley, who had grown up in Cleveland and Chicago, and spent part of her youth in Montana. She graduated from the Convent of the Sacred Heart boarding school and was educated at the University of Montana. Dorothy was working as a legal secretary in California when she met Thomas. “When I met him he was everything I admired, we got along beautifully, and that was it,” she later told the Los Angeles Times. They wed shortly thereafter, in 1930. “When I married … I didn’t care about anything else but that tall, six-foot-three-and-a-half man,” she said.
She would become a volunteer for the Assistance League and the Ladies of Charity, and for Salesian Boys Camp and the Social Service Auxiliary. She helped organizations serving the blind and co-founded a camp for girls. She led the Leavey Foundation after Thomas’ death in 1980, and would be awarded four honorary degrees, from the University of Southern California, Georgetown, Santa Clara, and Loyola Marymount. The devout Catholic was honored by her church as a dame of the Order of St. Gregory, a dame of the Knights of Malta, and a dame of Magistral Grace.
Thomas and Dorothy had two daughters, Dorothy Therese Lemons, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1979, and Kathleen McCarthy Kostlan, who took over leadership of the Leavey Foundation when Dorothy died at age 101 in 1998.
The “very generous family” Dorothy Leavey spoke of continues its mission of service, and recently announced the Leavey Awards Class of 2018. They are:
Jeffrey Bracken and Amanda Mosely, of Westerville North High School in Ohio, for creation of the school-wide, interdisciplinary Chem Gems Soap Company.
Kimberly Flueso, of Saucon Valley High School in Pennsylvania, for the “Start Up Saucon” project.
Julia Giglia, of Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, in Massachusetts, for “Spin for Change: A Social Entrepreneurship Project.”
Dr. John P. Hilston, a professor history and economics at Eastern Florida State College, for his initiative “Using American History and Active Learning to Teach Economics.”
Jennifer Jordan, of Madeira High School in Cincinnati, for “The Entrepreneur,” a competition among student-run companies modeled after TV’s “The Apprentice.”
Carrie Settles-Livers, of Brookwood High School in Georgia, for combining the worlds of science and business in “STEMpreneurship with Brookwood Aquaponics.”
Yadira Vazquez, of CeDin Laboratory School in Puerto Rico, for engaging her middle-school students with “The Green Entrepreneur: Business Opportunities for a Sustainable Earth.”
These eight educators will be honored at a celebration of the 41st Annual Leavey Awards from 6 to 10 p.m. Thursday, July 26, on the campus of Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.
“More than ever, our nation and its economy need entrepreneurs, small-business owners, and business visionaries,” said Jason Raia, executive vice president of Freedoms Foundation. “These leaders are coming from the classrooms of Leavey Award recipients. People are now realizing what Thomas and Dorothy Leavey knew 41 years ago – teaching future generations to develop an appreciation, knowledge and enthusiasm for the American free enterprise system is essential to ensuring our nation’s continued success.”
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