Georgia Lesh-Laurie served as chancellor of CU Denver from 1997 – 2003. On May 9, 2019, she passed away at 80 years old—but her legacy at CU Denver will continue to live on. The Georgia Lesh-Laurie Trust announced in summer 2019 that the former Chancellor Emerita will gift to CU Denver nearly $5 million over the next 10 years. A fund of this size could cover tuition and fees for more than 40 undergraduate students annually, beginning as early as next fall.
“This gift is a substantial shot in the arm for scholarships, which are so influential in enrollment,” said Melisa Baldwin, vice chancellor of Advancement. Especially now, when learning has moved online for the foreseeable future to combat the spread of COVID-19, maintaining and increasing enrollment is paramount for the university.
An Accomplished Career
Chancellor Lesh-Laurie, PhD, is remembered as a trailblazer in academia and a renowned scientific researcher. She received her undergraduate education at Marietta College in Ohio, her MS from the University of Wisconsin, and her PhD from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio before starting a career as a biologist and zoologist specializing in developmental biology.
Prior to joining CU Denver, Lesh-Laurie served in various roles at Cleveland State University, including dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, chair of the Biology Department, dean of the College of Graduate Studies, and interim provost. She started at CU Denver in 1991 as vice chancellor for Academic Affairs. In November 1995, she was appointment to interim chancellor and in February 1997 named to the permanent post as CU Denver’s chancellor. She later went on to serve as chief academic officer at the United Arab Emirates University.
Those who worked with Lesh-Laurie at CU Denver describe her as a fearless leader with an infectious laugh. “When Georgia was chancellor, she successfully steered the campus through a difficult transitional period,” Mark Gelernter, PhD, dean emeritus, College of Architecture and Planning, said in an article published in CU Denver News after her passing. “She made us feel more like a big family than a bureaucracy, generously mentoring many who went on to successful administrative careers of their own.”
During her accomplished career as a biologist, Lesh-Laurie edited and wrote in numerous professional journals, was the recipient of many research grants and fellowships, and belonged to several professional organizations in the biological and zoological fields. She was even featured in American Women of Science Since 1900—a publication on 500 of the 20th century’s most notable American women scientists—for her research on a drug that could be used in place of digitalis for the treatment of congestive heart failure.
The publication reads: “Digitalis, made from the purple foxglove plant, increases the heart’s pumping power without increasing oxygen demand, but patients with kidney problems are unable to use it. Lesh-Laurie’s stimulant is a protein found in the toxin of the hydra, a small freshwater cousin of the jellyfish, and the protein was discovered after people stung by jelly-fish noticed a sudden neurological and cardiovascular response. Sponsored by the American Heart Association, she continued work in the 1980s on developing a drug incorporating the protein.”
Leaving a Mark at CU Denver
Lesh-Laurie’s financial contributions to CU Denver date back to the 90s. In 1997, she set up a scholarship fund in memory of her and her husband’s late fathers, named the Howard F. Lesh and William R. Laurie Scholarship Fund. Neither of their fathers were able to go to college, but they fought for their children to get a college education. It’s said that Lesh-Laurie and her husband, who passed away in 2004, kept in touch with the graduates they helped through the fund.
That fund continues to distribute more than $4,000 every year for scholarships granted to older students who both study and work. As of December 2019, the fund had contributed an estimated total of $100,000.
That brings us to Lesh-Laurie’s current gift. During her lifetime, she set up a charitable trust to benefit two beneficiaries equally after she passed away. CU Denver is one beneficiary; the other is Marietta College (her alma mater). The initial gift to CU of $525,000 was received in February 2020 for the purposes of establishing and/or funding student academic scholarships on the Denver campus for one year.
The Office of Gift Planning anticipates receiving similar distributions of $500,000 – $600,000 each year over the next 10 years, until the Georgia Lesh-Laurie Trust is exhausted. They are working with Financial Aid to determine the criteria for the scholarship so that students can apply during the next academic year.
Though most of us never knew Lesh-Laurie, we will all reap the benefits of her generous financial contributions to CU Denver, in a time when we need it most.