Dr. Michael Leff died February 5, 2010, following a short illness. We thank Dr. Michael
Osborn and Dean Richard Ranta for the following tribute.
Mike was internationally known as a scholar of rhetoric, having returned only recently
from China where he was working to set up a student exchange program. Among his many
honors, he had been designated by the National Communication Association as a Distinguished
Scholar. At his death he was president of the Rhetoric Society of America, and had
been busy planning the Society's May convention in Minneapolis up until the day before
Mike was the intellectual leader of a school of criticism that emphasizes close textual
analysis of speeches and other rhetorical documents. For his many publications, he
had been awarded the NCA's Wichelns-Winans award, the Woolbert award for influential
scholarship, and the Ehninger award for a sustained program of research. He had also
received the award for Distinguished Scholarship from the International Society for
the Study of Argumentation. He served as editor of Rhetorica, the journal of the International
Society for the History of Rhetoric, and as the founding president of the American
Society for the History of Rhetoric.
While he took pleasure in the many awards he had received, Mike took most joy in watching
his graduate students succeed in establishing scholarly careers of their own. He was
a demanding but convivial teacher who inspired students and colleagues by his encouragement
of their initiatives and by his dedication to the study of rhetoric in society. As
Chaucer might have noted of him, "Gladly would he learn, and gladly teach."
Before coming to the University of Memphis, Mike had taught at the University of California
at Davis, the University of Indiana, the University of Wisconsin, and at Northwestern
University, where he had served as chair of the Department of Communication Studies.
While in Chicago, he took special pride in teaching in the Odyssey program, designed
to bring high quality liberal arts education to low income people.
As a local leader here, Mike helped bring the Ph. D. program at the University of
Memphis to both respectability and leadership. He developed a vision for the Department
which emphasized enhancement of its outstanding program in film production, support
of a program in health communication, and the encouragement of a center for the study
of African American speaking of the Civil Rights era. He served on the Board of Directors
for the Memphis Urban Debate League, a cause in which he passionately believed, and
for FirstWorks, Inc. a Memphis-based non-profit organization that serves children
who reside in some of the poorest zip codes of the city. These children have great
potential for success but they have been declared at-risk by the school and juvenile
court systems due to homelessness, neglect, and/or abandonment. Their cause became
Leff's cause. He also served on the Board of Directors for Humanities Tennessee, the
state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
As a friend, Mike was simply a joyful and radiant person. He was an ideal dinner and
wine-tasting companion, who entertained with a wealth of hilarious stories. In recent
years he had become a dedicated fan of the Grizzlies, the NBA team in Memphis.
A celebration of his life and career is being planned for the RSA convention in Minneapolis.
The celebration will feature his scholarship and his teaching, but what drove both
were his humanity, his humor, and his kindness. Those who wish to honor his memory
are encouraged to send contributions in lieu of flowers to the Memphis Urban Debate
League, 8679 Stablemill Lane, Memphis, TN 38016. While we grieve his death, we will
forever be grateful for his life.