Calhoun dean, Leslie Woodard, dies at 53

Students and faculty gathered in Calhoun courtyard to honor Woodard's memory.
Students and faculty gathered in Calhoun courtyard to honor Woodard's memory. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Leslie Woodard, English professor and dean of Calhoun College, died unexpectedly Monday in her home in Calhoun. She was 53 years old.

Woodard served as a beloved dean of Calhoun College since she arrived at Yale in 2007 and also taught the creative writing course “Introduction to Fiction.” She was instrumental in the founding of Freshman Scholars at Yale, a five-week program launched this summer designed to ease the transition from high school to college for approximately 30 incoming freshmen. Although the cause of her death is unknown, Calhoun Master Jonathan Holloway said in a Monday email to Calhoun students that Woodard appeared to have died of natural causes. Members of the Yale community who knew Woodard said they were shocked at her sudden death but will remember her vivacity, dedication and compassion.

“She saw all the good things in people and brought them out,” said Terrence Chin-Loy ’14, a Calhoun freshmen counselor, in an email to the News. “Her spirit lives on in Calhoun because her [presence] and joie de vivre are now forever ingrained into this place.”

Late Monday night, the Calhoun courtyard was packed with students attending a candlelight vigil in remembrance of Woodard. After Holloway, University President Peter Salovey and University Chaplain Sharon Kugler spoke for approximately 30 minutes, students stayed in the courtyard to console each other and share their favorite stories and memories of Woodard. In the background, speakers played Motown music — Woodard’s favorite — beneath a canopy of turquoise and white lights.

Holloway, who choked up several times during his remarks, imagined what Woodard, whom Calhoun students referred to as “Dean,” might have said to console her grieving students.

“She would say, ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and march with a capital M,’” Holloway said. “We owe it to her to be sad and confused, but we will do honor to her by picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off and marching.”

Students, faculty members, administrators and staff interviewed all emphasized Woodard’s omnipresent optimism and passion.

Woodard stood “in the rare class of teachers of writing who manage to combine genuine, contagious warmth and positivity with shrewd, insightful, trenchant criticism,” Alec Joyner ’14, a student in Woodard’s “Introduction to Fiction” class, told the News in an email.

Ashley Feng ’16, a Calhoun student in the same class, said Woodard took her students seriously as writers, even when they did not share the same confidence in themselves.

Natalia Garza ’14, a Calhoun freshmen counselor, said Woodard played a very important role in shaping her academic future. Woodard continually reminded her to pursue what she loved — a message that Graza said was amplified by Woodard’s own life story. Before attaining her bachelor’s degree from Columbia, Woodard pursued professional dance for over a decade as a member of the Dance Theater of Harlem.

Judy Tyrus, who was Woodard’s roommate while she was employed by the Dance Theater of Harlem, said in a Monday email that Woodard performed in many of the company’s signature ballets, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Firebird.” She also had a keen sense of humor, Tyrus recalled.

“She was an incredible dean of Calhoun College and a wonderful human being,” University President Peter Salovey told the News. “I feel so sorry about her passing and my heart goes out especially to the Calhoun community.”

Calhoun residents and staff said Woodard managed to touch the lives of countless members of the college’s community during her tenure as Dean.

Though Jessica Booker, a Calhoun dining hall worker, was not scheduled to work Monday evening, she said she quickly returned to Calhoun when she heard of Woodard’s passing.

“[I] couldn’t imagine being anywhere else right now,” she said.

Garza said that although it is difficult for her to see Woodard’s dog, Jimmy Dean, roam the Calhoun courtyard without his owner, she is confident that Calhoun’s close-knit community will endure, in part because of how influential Woodard was in defining the college’s identity.

“The memory of Dean Woodard’s energy, enthusiasm and incredibly caring personality will live on in our hearts,” Ryan Campbell ’16, a student in Calhoun, said in an email. “As she always used to say, ‘Hounies stick together.’ And it’s true.”

Before her passing, Woodard was working on a new novel entitled “The Last Tour of the Hot-House Flower.” Richard Deming, director of creative writing at Yale, said he remembers Woodard telling him over coffee last week that she felt that she had finally “caught the voice of her novel” and was anxious to continue writing it.

Woodard’s youth and exuberance only heightened the shock and devastation the English Department felt at the news of her death, English professor J.D. McClatchy GRD ’74 said.

Woodard is survived by her sister, Laurie Woodard GRD ’02 ’03 ’07, and her beloved Shetland sheepdog, Jimmy Dean.

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