Leslie Wind, PhD, LCSW, a longtime NASW member and respected leader, peacefully passed away in her home on August 30, 2021 surrounded by family and close friends. A Celebration of Life event was held in her honor on September 26, 2021 at the USC School of Social Work where her husband, faculty, and alumna had the chance to highlight contributions she made to the social work profession, as well as share about the positive impact that she made in their lives. With permission, we share a eulogy that was written by one of her mentees, Rachel Gardner, LCSW.
It is an honor to stand before all of you as a representative of the countless alumni whose lives have been transformed by Dr. Leslie Wind. It is my hope that my words pay tribute to her memory and provide some sense of comfort as we mourn together. As author & civil rights activist Maya Angelou eloquently said, “A great soul serves everyone all the time. A great soul never dies. It brings us together again and again.” And so it is that through Leslie, we are united, not only to grieve together, but to collectively celebrate a life that had a profound impact on us all.
An unknown author is quoted, “Grief is the last act of love we can give to those we loved. Where there is deep grief, there was great love.” In 2005, David Kessler & Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a book entitled, “On Grief & Grieving” where they outlined 5 stages of grief & loss, which included: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. However, in 2019, David Kessler published a new book which extended his research to include a 6th stage: “Finding Meaning.” This insightful concept is intensely personal and has helped me to transform my grief into a more peaceful experience, and ultimately to move forward in a way that honors Leslie’s legacy. It is from this point of ‘finding meaning’ that I would like to focus, but before I do, I’d like to share my personal story how Leslie impacted my life:
I first met Dr. Wind, as I respectfully referred to her back then, in 2009 where she was a Clinical Associate Professor and later the Associate Dean of Academic Programs at the Orange County Academic Center in my tenure as a graduate student at USC…and when I say tenure, I mean 10 years…just kidding, I was only in the program for 5 years. I had just returned having taken a yearlong medical leave after complications from the birth of my daughter. I was fragile and had a broken spirit but was determined to finish my master’s degree. She graciously took me under her wing for the remaining years I was in the program and hired me as a research assistant where we worked together on various school-related projects. Concurrently, we collaborated together to plan and organize monthly professional development events for the Orange County Unit of the National Association of Social Workers, where she served as the Unit Chair and eventually the Regional Director. It was a privilege to surprise and pay homage to her in 2014 with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her, then, 40+ years of dedication to the social work profession. Our paths crossed yet again when I was hired by a local non-profit organization and learned that she was also serving as president of their board of directors. In this role, I was fortunate to glean additional wisdom from her as we worked together on a few joint projects.
Over the years, her role in my life transformed from that of a distinguished educator, respected boss, esteemed colleague, wise mentor, personal superhero, dear friend, and eventually pseudo mom. Throughout the 12 years of blessed friendship, we spent cherished time together at various professional conferences, annual Thanksgiving dinners with her family, vacationing in my now home state of Utah, weekly calls/texts, and most recently at her bedside for the remaining precious moments of her life.
I remember being freshly graduated, and extremely broke I might add, but had been bugging to take Leslie to dinner since I had received coupons in the mail for a free meal at Soup Plantation. This was the day she informed me about her cancer diagnosis, and I was sworn to keep this private until she had a chance to share the news with the staff at USC. My heart shattered into a million pieces when I realized my superhero was mortal. It was at this point that my grief journey began over the imminent loss that was to come to fruition. I then witnessed firsthand the power of a positive, or perhaps stubborn, mindset. Over the next 9 years, she exhibited such fortitude and grace as she fought so diligently for her life. Everything she taught me through her words and encouragement to tackle my own adversity, she also modeled through the way she lived her life and battled for longevity.
I’d like to share one of the many treasured memories of Leslie that demonstrated her genuine character. During one particularly difficult summer, I was struggling and wanted to give up. Leslie encouraged me to stay strong and to find ways to keep fighting. As a means to apply her advice, I took up regular bike riding to work toward staying mentally and physically healthy. Unfortunately, after a few months of dedicated riding that yielded desired benefits, my bike ended up getting stolen and again I experienced great defeat. Soon thereafter, Leslie invited me over for dinner and handed me a card with a cute little bike decal on the front. She was so excited, grabbed my hand before I had a chance to finish reading it, and guided me to the garage. She explained that she and Jim had bought matching bikes years prior, but that she could no longer ride due to side effects from the cancer treatments. She had refurbished her bike, added all the proverbial bells and whistles, and was gifting it to me. This act of kindness was more than just simple generosity – it was a symbol of her investing in me to persevere.
Leslie and I had established a profound bond throughout the years. She exhibited and expressed unconditional love and acceptance toward me – something that I had never truly felt or experienced before. She invested in me, not only as one of her alumni, but as a mother would to their daughter. I feel privileged to have had many deep and vulnerable discussions about her philosophies of life, hopes, unwavering faith, unconditional love for her family, her passion for not only the profession but also for her beloved students as she prepared them to be the next generation of social workers, as well as difficult conversations about her journey with cancer and end of life decisions. And while I only saw her cry once in all my interactions with her over the years, it wasn’t from fear or self-pity; but rather, it was an expression of kindred love that was powerfully exchanged during her final days.
The Bette Midler song, “Wind Beneath My Wings” sings true of the lyrics: “Did you ever know you’re my hero? You’re everything I wish I could be. I could fly higher than an eagle, for you are the Wind beneath my wings.” See what I did there…Leslie Wind…wind beneath my wings. Johann Wolfgang, a German poet from the mid 1700’s is quoted saying, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” Leslie embodied this philosophy wholeheartedly. She always lifted others and aided them to reach their highest potential. I was fortunate, as many of you have also personally experienced, to be a recipient of this profound gift.
To quote Hellen Keller, “What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose; for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us.” I want to thank Leslie for encouraging me to strive each day to be a better person, and I promise to always do my best knowing that she is forever with me. I am because you were.
So, in closing and returning to the sentiment of finding meaning in this significant loss, Leslie taught all of us that life is more than just surviving; life can be beautiful and full of happiness if we choose to make so…and I pray that we do. FIGHT ON, Leslie!