Maria Leonard, Alpha Lambda Delta Founder and Illini Dean of Women

Maria Leonard

Maria Leonard was an alumna of Butler University. After studying voice at Butler, she earned a Master’s degree in mathematics from Colorado College. Her intention was to be a mathematics teacher. Educational administration was then a relatively new field and, in 1910, she became Dean of Women at Idaho State Normal College in Albion. Two years later, she became Dean of Women at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a position she held until 1923 when she became Dean of Women at the University of Illinois. She was on the UIUC campus for 22 years, from 1923-1945.

In 1914, she wrote, “What are we doing today, college women, for the social uplift that is permeating and pulsating through our land? We, who are receiving the fullest light possible for the world to give? Are we living up to that light,- if not, why not?  We find from statistics that one, only, from every 700 girls has the distinction of being a college girl.

“According to that we represent one of seven hundred girls, who have had to lay aside youthful hopes and ambitions, aspirations as high as ours perhaps, in order to earn their living at an early age. These are the years, which should have been spent in school, to give them a fair start for the world’s competition. One of every seven hundred being prepared for leadership, -think of it! These are the facts to-day, and this, the responsibility which faces the college girl. During her four years of college education and afterward-does she owe anything to anyone? Is she debtor in any way to her college or to the community? Yes, decidedly yes, not only to live up to the ideals of womanhood – the vision she has caught, by contact with living personalities, but she must pass it on to the other 699, who, by circumstance have been denied her chance. Nothing is truly ours until we share it.”

She founded Alpha Lambda Delta in 1924; it was originally an honorary to recognize academic excellence among freshmen women. A year earlier, University of Illinois Dean Thomas Arkle Clark founded its male counterpart, Phi Eta Sigma. In the mid-1970s, both organizations became coeducational.

According to the 1933 Illio yearbook, “Counsel and help are always available at the office of the Dean of Women for all the University women, students, parents, chaperons, town house-mothers, and anyone interested in youth. Presidents of organizations, committee chairmen, and individual students may call any hour of the school day at the office to discuss with Dean Leonard and Miss Pierson personal or group needs. Many confidential questions, such as finance, working hours, the home where each student lives, adjustment to new study environments, are considered individually as each student seeks counsel. Building toward better living conditions, fine incentives for scholarship, and intellectual living for individual students, their group and the campus in general, is the aim of the office of the Dean of Women.”

According to her obituary, “She once remarked that she saw about 3,000 students per week.” In 1940, she was one of four deans of women rated most outstanding in the Middle West. That year, Dean Leonard was a speaker at the Pi Beta Phi convention; her topic was “Fraternity Service in the Preservation of Democracy.” She also spoke to many other organizations including the World Congress of Business and Professional Women’s’ Clubs and the International Federation of University Women.

In 1945, she retired, a milestone that was recognized in an editorial in the Arrow of Pi Beta Phi, “Pi Phis who have known Maria Leonard, Indiana Gamma, in person, or who have followed her study programs which chapters used in stimulating discussions of general interest, will hear with regret that Miss Leonard is retiring as Dean of Women at the University of Illinois. Her influence as a Dean has been a far-reaching one; everywhere she has spoken she has brought inspiration. Her work for girls has been a steadying and an uplifting force, not only on her own campus, but far beyond.”

After retiring, she moved to Palo Alto, California. She traveled extensively. She died in Livermore, California in 1976 at the age of 96.

I offer my gratitude to the Student Life Archives at the University of Illinois for providing me with a copy of Maria Leonard’s obituary. It is also interesting to note that there is another Pi Phi following in Maria Leonard’s footsteps. Ashley Dye, an alumna of the University of Illinois is its current Assistant Dean of Students.

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