Recently, the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences (MSASS) celebrated the appointment of Mark L. Joseph, Ph.D., as the Leona Bevis/Marguerite Haynam Associate Professor in Community Development. I knew Leona Bevis personally and was honored to be a panelist during the program.
When Leona spoke, people listened. She was very thoughtful about what she said.
Leona left a legacy of commitment and community services that still helps thousands of people every day. During her career, she helped design and advocate on behalf of improved policies and services on the state and local levels, led local drives to provide immediate help to Clevelanders in need, helped develop the professionalism of the social work field and played a pivotal role in the Center for Community Solutions’ history. One of her tangible legacies was a gift helping to establish the professional chair in community development at MSASS. At the recent celebration, it was fun to see 50 years of our board’s leadership represented in one room by the attendance of Bill Ginn (chair, 1966-1968), who knew Leona well, and Zulma Zabala, our current board chair.
Who was Leona Bevis, and what’s The Center for Community Solutions’ connection to her?
Leona was executive director of Community Solutions (then, Federation for Community Planning) when I started as a very junior staff member in 1978. I quickly observed that she was respected and admired by our staff and in the community. When Leona spoke, people listened. She was very thoughtful about what she said. She could be firm because she knew she was usually right. As the organization’s first female executive, she didn’t just break through a “glass ceiling;” she smashed it into smithereens. She sat at tables that traditionally only welcomed middle-aged white males. She was assertive, yet easy to approach. She treated everyone—even the most junior staff member—with dignity and as someone of value. She retired in 1979.
As the organization’s first female executive, she didn’t just break through a “glass ceiling;” she smashed it into smithereens
I had much more of an opportunity to engage with her after she retired, especially when she served as consultant to our 75th anniversary endowment campaign in 1988. Again, when she made observations or gave advice, people listened and usually acted on her ideas. She treated everyone with the utmost respect, and she was successful in fundraising due, in large part I think, to her way of making people feel good about themselves and about giving.
What made her the expert professional she was? She was born on a farm in Hamilton, Ohio, in 1915, graduated high school in 1932 and worked her way through college. After college, she went right to work in what was a relatively new field—Aid to Dependent Children (ADC)—in Butler County. The general population had grown tremendously due to the steel mills; laborers brought with them many unskilled, often illiterate, family members. There were few formal policies or procedures for ADC at that time, so Leona’s role was to visit families in their homes to determine if they needed financial aid to maintain a basic standard of living. She recognized the need for them to learn to read and understand the basics of math to survive, and, to experience any type of upward social mobility. But when she began teaching them, she was told to stop because it was considered beyond the role of a social worker. The frustration she felt at the time still came through when she told this story many years later. She brought her passion to help people with her to Cleveland, and, in 1945, graduated from Western Reserve University. That’s when her Northeast Ohio career began, taking her from a social work job in the Akron area to the state welfare department, to the Welfare Federation (our name at that time) in 1952, to United Torch Services, and, eventually, back to take the helm of our organization in 1972.
In 2005, I had the opportunity to visit Leona in Connecticut. She passed away four years later. I’m so glad I was able to visit with her and not just stay in touch by mail or over the phone.
Over the past 40 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with, and learning from, people who have played critical roles in the development of our community. They’ve had many things in common:
- Ensured they knew what they were talking about…before they started talking
- Were passionate about the people they were trying to help
- Weren’t afraid to take on controversial issues and stand their ground
- Treated others with respect and human dignity
- Showed appreciation for those around them who helped them be successful
Today’s human services professionals honor the legacies of Leona Bevis and others like her by doing our best to embody those same qualities, and show those same attitudes, always remembering the ultimate goal of helping people.
Photos courtesy Anthony Gray Photography