Rosemary Leahey was a tireless social worker, a devout Catholic, a loyal friend and a valued member of her community. She also left her mark at Fontbonne University — and continues to do so. Upon her death in March 2005, the 78-year-old left her alma mater nearly $500,000.
“She outdid herself,” says Kay Wagner, Leahey’s good friend and colleague of more than 35 years. “It shows how much Fontbonne meant to her. She always spoke fondly of the university — it was the ultimate luxury in her life.”
According to Wagner, Leahey grew up in north St. Louis City. Her father died when she was only 12, and her mother supported Leahey and her siblings by working nights at the St. Louis State Mental Hospital. “Rose didn’t have a lot growing up,” Wagner recalls.
But Leahey overcame the adversity of her childhood, and friends remember her positive disposition. “She was always optimistic and generous with her time and patience,” Wagner says. “I always thought of her as a saintly person — never negative.”
Leahey graduated from Fontbonne in 1949 with a degree in economics. She started a lifelong career in social work at the Catholic Charities Department of Children in St. Louis. There she helped children through their adoptions, foster homes, residential or institutional care, education and health care. She later joined Catholic Family Services, where she counseled mothers and their children living at St. Martha’s Hall, a St. Louis emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence.
“Rosemary was one of a long line of outstanding Catholic women who devoted their lives to the profession of social work and used their professional gifts in the service of the church and community,” said Jack Lally, Leahey’s former supervisor, during her eulogy. “She was one of those beautiful people who asked for and took little from life, but gave much.”
Doris Harrington first met Leahey while both were students at Fontbonne. “She had a true love for helping people,” says Harrington, a 1948 graduate. “There never was a case (at her job) so sorry she wouldn’t take it. Rose always said, ‘It’ll be interesting to see how it all turns out.’ She was so loveable and upbeat.”
Wagner agrees. “Rose was very intelligent and had good insight. She could always get through to the tough clients — people with serious dysfunction — when others couldn’t,” she says. “She liked to rescue people.”
Leahey also enjoyed rescuing houses — she tried her hand at rehabbing a home in Lafayette Square. She dreamed of being a painter and opera singer, loved to travel, garden, swim at the YMCA, bicycle, eat at nice restaurants, visit friends, enjoy ice cream and listen to classical music. “There was always music in the background when I called,” Wagner says.
Leahey is remembered as a passionate person committed to improving the lives of families in the St. Louis area — through her career, her friendships and her charity.
“We are certainly honored by, and grateful for, Rosemary’s gift,” says Jeff Brown, Fontbonne’s gift planning officer. “She was a social worker who lived her life to help others. Her legacy now continues at Fontbonne where her generosity will serve the university for years to come.”
Editor’s Note: If you are inspired by Rosemary Leahey’s generosity and vision, and would like to learn more about giving opportunities at Fontbonne University, call 314-719-3688 or e-mail email@example.com.