Leslie Woodard, GS ’94, the former director of Columbia’s undergraduate creative writing program and dean of Yale’s undergraduate Calhoun College, died unexpectedly in her home Monday. She was 53.
Woodard was known among Yale students, faculty, and staff for her warmth, vivacity and passion, the Yale Daily News reported. At Columbia, colleagues remember her for the familial atmosphere she fostered in the writing program.
Woodard came to Yale in 2007, following seven years as director of Columbia’s undergraduate writing program. She taught the creative writing course “Introduction to Fiction” at Columbia and was also instrumental in creating Freshman Scholars, a five-week program helping first-years adjust to college life, at Yale, the Daily News reported.
Woodard had pursued professional dance for over a decade at the Dance Theatre of Harlem before enrolling in the School of General Studies, and she was working on a new novel called “The Last Tour of the Hot-House Flower.”
Yale held a candlelight vigil Monday night for Woodard, where speakers played her favorite Motown music, and Yale administrators gave speeches reflecting on her contributions to the community, the Daily News reported.
“She would say, ‘Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and march with a capital M,’” Calhoun Master Jonathan Holloway said at the vigil, according to the YDN. “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.”
At Columbia, Woodard is remembered for her warm nature and dedication to creating a strong community in the writing department.
Writing professor Sam Lipsyte said he recalls Woodard as “an incredibly warm and generous person and a very passionate teacher.”
Lipsyte, who was assigned to oversee GS students in the creative writing department, said that Woodard showed him the administrative ropes.
Students would describe Woodard as “a kind person and a really caring, but demanding teacher," Lipsyte said, adding that he thought she created “a comfortable, easygoing, cohesive creative writing atmosphere."
“She created a really great environment for the creative writing students,” he said. “There was always some coffee and cookies around, and she looked out for everybody.”
Alan Ziegler, a professor in the School of the Arts, served as director and taught Woodard when she was a student. Ziegler said in an email that Woodard was deeply influential as director of the writing program and as director of the writing division of the School of Continuing Education’s Summer Program for High School Students.
“Unique is a word writers are discouraged from using, but it applies to Leslie’s combination of spirit, talent, dedication, and loyalty,” Ziegler said. “She truly loved her students, and that love could take the form of encouraging, consoling, coaxing, prodding, or just plain listening—she always knew what students wanted and needed.”
Ziegler recalled a moment when Woodard, speaking to a group of prospective GS applicants, brought humor to a tense situation.
“She said, and I paraphrase: ‘Each of you has something that makes you terribly afraid to do this. I’ll tell you what mine was. Before I applied, I was a dancer, and the only place I sat was on the floor. I was scared to death of having to sit in a chair for two hours at a time,’” Ziegler recalled.
Christina Rumpf, manager of communications at Columbia’s School of the Arts, said in an email that Woodard’s “warmth, kindness and strength” had touched her.
“Personally, Leslie was my rock for many years, supporting me as a teacher, mentor, boss and friend,” Rumpf said. “Now, when I am teaching, I find myself using her words, her advice, even sometimes her gestures.”
Lipsyte said that the welcoming culture Woodard fostered in the department still remains in place.
“In the undergraduate writing program, there’s still a sense of community, and she was somebody who was a big supporter of that,” Lipsyte said.
Ziegler agreed, saying, “Under her direction, the writing program was so much more than an office and a course offering. It was a home, and as soon as you walked into Leslie’s office, you were family.”