Magazine Feature / People

Professor emeritus leaves legacy of activism

As a professor of political science and former chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, Bill Leavel’s career relied on strong adult relationships. But in the later part of his life, he found a new passion — volunteering to teach elementary school.

“He didn’t think he would like kids — he worked with adults all the time — but found out he really liked teaching the third and fifth-graders,” says Leavel’s best friend Drew Hershey. “He planned to teach again this [coming] fall but he didn’t make it.”

Leavel, a well-known Denver Democrat who taught at DU for almost 25 years, died July 30 in Wilton Manors, Fla. He had just turned 82.

“Academia, community involvement and politics consumed [Leavel’s] life,” Hershey says, noting that Leavel never stopped fighting for equal rights. Leavel founded the Alexander Foundation in 1981, “a much needed charity which offers extraordinary help to GLBT individuals and families in Colorado,” Hershey says.

For his work in the gay community, Leavel received the Colorado Community Service Award from the Denver Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the Paul Hunter Award from the Human Rights Campaign’s Colorado chapter, and Leavel’s personal favorite, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb’s proclamation of “Bill Leavel Day” on Jan. 28, 1993.

Leavel architected many Colorado campaigns, before being elected chair of the Colorado Democratic party in 1971. That same year, he was acting chairman of DU’s political science department.

Throughout the years, he also served as a Democratic precinct committeeman, district ward leader, county central committee, state central committee and member of the national committee.

“I don’t know how he did it,” Hershey says. “I don’t know he found all the time and money to do all of it.”

Willard Leavel was born July 28, 1927, in Columbia, Mo.

He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver and his doctorate from the University of Washington.

He taught at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, before joining DU’s political science department in 1963.

Leavel’s background in real-life politics enabled him to bring more practical and relevant experience to the classroom, colleagues say. Former political science Chair Ken Millsap wrote in 1977 that Leavel’s class enrollments were excellent due to “the vast amount of expertise and knowledge he is able to impart to students from his past and current endeavors in the field of political operations and organization.”

“I consider Leavel to be not only one of our best teachers in the department but one of the most knowledgeable academics when it comes to practical politics,” Millsap wrote.

Leavel helped develop and maintain the department’s internship program, which was extremely popular with students. His passion for politics influenced everyone he came across.

“The first day I appeared at the political science office in 1968 to begin teaching as an assistant professor, Bill Leavel took me in his car downtown to register as a voter in the state of Colorado,” says retired DU Professor Steve McCarl. “He was a dedicated political activist who encouraged everyone to participate in politics.”

Leavel retired from DU in 1987.

“He was very proud of DU,” Hershey says, adding how impressed Leavel was by the developments and new buildings on campus.

“He was very funny, very outgoing and really cared for people.”

A memorial will be held Aug. 27 at Alamo Placita Park, Odgen Street and 3rd Ave. For more information, contact Drew Hershey at or (954) 661-8184.

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