Longtime Philanthropist Dorothy Leavey Dies


Dorothy Leavey, a philanthropist whose foundation has donated well over $100 million to educational, medical and Catholic causes, has died. She was 101.

Leavey, the widow of Farmers Insurance co-founder Thomas E. Leavey, died Wednesday in Beverly Hills, said her daughter, Kathleen McCarthy.

The Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation was established in 1952, and she continued to guide its gifts after the death of her husband in 1980. A devout Catholic, Leavey and her foundation recently donated $10 million toward construction of a new cathedral for the Los Angeles Archdiocese to replace St. Vibiana’s.

Although the Leaveys preferred to donate quietly and often anonymously, two Los Angeles area buildings now bear her name in recognition of major gifts: the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Library at USC and the Dorothy E. Leavey Family Resource Center at the Assistance League in Hollywood, both dedicated in 1994.


The foundation gave $9 million for the library. Leavey, long active in the Assistance League, donated $8 million toward the resource center, including $1 million from her personal funds. It is the only Leavey building, among at least seven stretching from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., to Santa Clara University in California, to bear her name alone.

“Well, very simply, if you have some available help [to give], there’s no use in you not giving to someone who needs it,” she told The Times in 1994, explaining why she had donated so much to so many. “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.”

After her younger daughter, Dorothy Therese “Terry” Lemons, was killed in an automobile accident in 1979, Leavey became a quiet but active donor to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). She telegraphed founder Candy Lightner simply: “I have heard of your work. I would like to know how I can help.”

Inviting Lightner for lunch, Leavey handed her a $100,000 check--under a Los Angeles Country Club table. Eventually the foundation contributed more than $2 million to MADD. For many years, Leavey had a license plate on her chauffeured Cadillac that read “4 MADD.”


In recent years, Leavey had also aided the Lincoln Training Center in South El Monte. She was known for taking an active interest in groups she supported--touring such centers or writing letters to newspapers and legislators.

About half of the Leavey Foundation gifts are to Catholic institutions, including Loyola Marymount and Georgetown universities, Loyola, Marymount and (her alma mater) Sacred Heart of Mary high schools and St. John’s Hospital. Her church has honored her as a dame of the Order of St. Gregory, a dame of the Knights of Malta and a dame of Magistral Grace.

Other major Leavey beneficiaries have been California Hospital Medical Center and the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge.

Among the dozens of others with reason to thank the Leaveys have been the United Negro College Fund, Para los Ninos, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, the Right to Life League of Southern California, the Los Angeles County Music Center, the California 4-H Foundation and individuals such as a San Fernando Valley man who gives horseback rides to blind children.

Born Dorothy Risley in Omaha, the philanthropist grew up in Cleveland and Chicago, where she graduated from the Convent of the Sacred Heart School in suburban Lake Forest. She also spent part of her childhood in Butte, Mont., where she learned to ride horses “Indian style without a saddle.”

She attended the University of Montana and began working as a legal secretary, a field in which she continued when she moved to California in her youth.

She met Leavey as he and John C. Tyler were starting Farmers Insurance in 1928. The Leaveys were married in 1930 when she was in her early 30s. Any career aspirations were abandoned even though her first daughter, Kathleen, was not born until Leavey was 39.

“When I married, that was it,” she recalled at age 98. “I didn’t care about anything else but that tall, 6-foot-3 1/2 man.”


The new bride plunged into volunteer work for the Assistance League and the Ladies of Charity. As her children grew up, she added work for the blind, the Salesian Boys Camp in Oceanside and the Social Service Auxiliary. She also co-founded the Teresita Pines Camp for Girls.

As a nonagenarian, Leavey liked to sit in her wheelchair at the top of the steps to the Beverly Hills home she and her husband built in 1950, watching passersby.

“I see people, and I try to imagine how happy they are and so forth, and if they’re doing anything right,” she said. “I just muse along with my own life in the background.”

Asked at age 98 how it felt to grow so old, she said: “The funny part is, I don’t feel any different at all. . . . I feel just like I did when I was 20 years old. I am just as interested in everything.”

Leavey earned four honorary degrees--from USC and Georgetown, Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount Universities.

In addition to her daughter Kathleen, Leavey is survived by nine grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, with burial in Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to one of the charities that Leavey supported.