Dorothy E. Leavey sits, her posture quite fine, on a green floral couch under a painting of horses, patiently awaiting her guest. From the entry hall of her corner home in Beverly Hills, she appears almost regal, with a crown of thick snow-white hair and a three-strand pearl necklace--a leaner, granite-jawed Barbara Bush.
Is she really 98?
If neither her name nor that of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Foundation is familiar, it's quite deliberate. For years, this benefactor and matriarch--nine grandchildren; seven, going on eight, great-grandchildren--has declined to make her contributions to Los Angeles widely known.
But now that her name is carved into two prominent and distinctly different new buildings, in Hollywood and on the USC campus, there is no escaping recognition.
"It's embarrassing, it's \o7 very \f7 embarrassing" seeing your name on buildings, Leavey says. "I just don't like to have it bannered about. I don't care for a lot of hoo-rah. But I get kind of a little twinge when I see \o7 Dorothy \f7 up there."
She smiles broadly.
In the last 15 years, the 42-year-old Leavey Foundation has donated $100 million to educational, medical and Catholic institutions, primarily in Southern California. Leavey's late husband made the family fortune as co-founder of Farmers Insurance, started in a small office on Spring Street a year before the 1929 stock market crash, and saw it become a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
Thomas Leavey died in 1980, leaving his wife of 50 years to help fulfill his legacy.
What has made the Leaveys so generous?
"Well, very simply, if you have some available help (to give)," she saysslowly, her voice hoarsened by age, "there's no use in you not giving to someone who needs it. 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."
Later, she adds: "I love to be charitable about things. But not overly so."
"You mean you hold \o7 back\f7 ?" quips Leavey's daughter, 1954 USC homecoming queen and college trustee Kathleen Leavey McCarthy, who helped persuade her mother to finally talk about her life.
She speaks with an economy of words, as if to conserve energy, and there is a certain reserve with someone new. Her humor is still razor-sharp.
Asked how she spends her days, Leavey's brown eyes sparkle: "Getting the best of my daughter."
Asked to cite the most important thing about Dorothy Leavey, she fairly shouts: \o7 "Survival!"\f7
Heartache came with a bang.
On March 29, 1979, Dorothy Leavey's younger daughter, Dorothy Therese (Terry) Lemons, was killed when a California Highway Patrol employee, driving 82 m.p.h. on the Golden State Freeway near Magic Mountain, crashed his car into the van she was riding in. She was 40, and the mother of five. The driver of the state-owned car pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter.
On the same day a year later, Thomas Leavey died at 82 after an extended illness. "Grandma told me," says Karen Lemons, "that Grandpa--we called him Poppa--died the day Mom died, and it took him a year to just physically die."
In the spring of 1981, Dorothy Leavey reached out to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Candy Lightner, who had founded MADD in Sacramento in 1980, four days after her 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed, recalls verbatim the telegram Leavey sent: " 'I have heard of your work. I would like to know how I can help.' "
Lightner phoned, and Leavey invited her to lunch at the Los Angeles Country Club, where Lightner was asked to shed her slacks in favor of a club-issued skirt. Barbara Bloomberg, a founder of the L.A. MADD chapter, joined them.
After hearing about MADD's mission, Leavey asked what she could do to help.
" 'We need money, we are desperate for money,' " Lightner told her.
Leavey wrote a personal check, handing it to Lightner under the table.
"I looked at it and I started crying. I thought it was for a $1,000," Lightner recalls. "I had never seen so many zeros in my life. (I thought), 'Oh God, this is wonderful--$1,000,' and tried to hand it to Barbara under the table to be cool and classy, and Barbara is looking at it, and her eyes are bulging, and (then) I realized what it was."
It was $100,000.
The foundation would ultimately give MADD almost $2 million. And for years, the plate on Leavey's Cadillac sedan read "4 MADD."
"Without them," says Lightner, now president of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, "there would be no MADD."
For years, Leavey insisted on anonymity. "She would not allow us to publicize her gifts or her in any way," Lightner says. "She was very adamant. . . . It was always, 'What are you doing?' 'How can I help?' She would write letters to newspapers and legislators. She put her money where her heart is."