Tommye Joanne Leavitt recently died after a month in the ICU due to complications from surgery for colon cancer, according to family and friends. And the community has been invited to honor the longtime community activist at an informal memorial picnic hosted by the League of Women Voters occurring in early February.
The picnic, which will occur Saturday, Feb. 8, from 1-3 p.m. at Virginia Avenue Park, seeks to allow local residents a chance to reflect on the life and many accomplishments of Leavitt in a place that was very meaningful to her, according to the event’s website. Attendees are invited to bring non-food items, such as books for children and young adults, so they can be donated to Community Corporation of Santa Monica’s new Joanne’s Library.
Natalya Zernitskaya, president of the League of Women Voters Santa Monica, said Wednesday the group chose to host the memorial because it wanted to have an additional opportunity to honor Leavitt’s memory in a place that she helped create and meant a lot to her — Virginia Avenue Park.
“It’s incredibly painful to lose an activist and leader like Joanne,” Zernitskaya added, mentioning how Leavitt would’ve celebrated her 80th birthday next Sunday. “She was a mentor to many of us (and) was an ordinary woman who had an extraordinary impact on her community. We will honor her memory by taking up her fight and continuing her work.”
The life of Joanne
Born to Claude and Hazel Bonner on a family farm near Marshfield, MO, on Feb. 9, 1940, “Tommy Jo” became “Joanne” shortly after she began elementary school in rural Missouri. According to family members, Leavitt would complete her studies and graduate from Marshfield High School in 1958 and attend college at Missouri University, where she studied journalism.
After living in Fort Worth, Texas for a period in the early 1960s, Leavitt followed Route 66 out to California and met her husband, Michael Leavitt, shortly after his return from Vietnam. The pair married in 1970 and Joanne soon began working as a travel agent for the early part of the decade.
Leavitt traveled frequently to Southeast Asia and her clientele included celebrity figures like Frank Sinatra, but her most notable work was done right here in the community, according to her son Thomas, who recently described how Leavitt became a full-time community organizer and activist after enrolling her children at Edison Elementary School in 1978 and moving to the Pico Neighborhood.
For the next 41 years, Leavitt served on the Santa Monica-Malibu PTA Council, the Virginia Avenue Park Advisory board and the City of Santa Monica’s Child Care and Early Education Task Force. Her passion for affordable housing and early childhood education also prompted her to become a board member of Community Corporation of Santa Monica — a non-profit affordable housing builder.
But, Thomas said, “Of all of Joanne’s many, many efforts, her work on behalf of the children of Edison Elementary was closest to her heart.”
“Once, when she walked onto the campus at John Adams Middle School, a former Edison student ran up and said, ‘Oh, Mrs. Leavitt, you’re here! I feel safe now,” Thomas said, adding, “No award or formal recognition ever made her more proud, and that is her true, living legacy. Thousands upon thousands of safer, healthier, happier (and) more accomplished children in Santa Monica and beyond busily making the world a better place.”
Family members highlighted that Leavitt also assisted in the process that helped Edison become a nationally recognized model for bilingual immersion education and continued to help preserve that status by assisting in the school’s conversion to a charter after the passage of Prop 187.
For the last 30 years of her life, Leavitt’s primary vehicle for community engagement was the League of Women Voters, where she served as President of the Santa Monica branch twice from 2002-2004, as well as the Los Angeles county-wide board from 1993-2004, and in a wide variety of other high profile roles and committee chair positions on up until her death, including a recent stint as Vice President for Advocacy and Program.
For more information on the upcoming memorial picnic, visit bit.ly/MemPicnic.