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Richard Perry Leavitt

Died: February 1, 2012

Dick Leavitt was born July 8, 1944 in Boston to Donald and Christine Perry Leavitt. He graduated from Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Massachusetts. Dick started at Yale in 1961 as a member of the class of ’65, but after a one-year leave of absence joined the class of ’66. He loved languages, was an accomplished writer, and a brilliant student. He majored in Russian studies and was designated a ranking scholar. He participated in the Russian Club and lived in Davenport College. Erudite, inquisitive, and naturally academic, Dick was also down to earth, quick and witty. He achieved some notoriety, to the delight of his roommates and others, as a master of practical jokes, generally picking snobby or conceited students as objects of attention. It was not unusual for Dick to create elaborate backgrounds and staging, including props where necessary, in order to ensure the desired effect. One mundane favorite, for example, was to tell his victim that he had received an urgent telephone call, appropriately misleading as to the identity of the caller, and giving him the call-back number confirming it was important to return the call immediately. The number, however, turned out to be the telephone at the local FBI office, usually causing the victim a degree of nervousness, fluster, and embarrassment. Other examples cannot be related here, and not simply because of a shortage of space.

But to dwell too much on his penchant for practical jokes would do a deep disservice to Richard Leavitt, who was blessed with a gift for service to others. After graduation Dick was in the Navy for three years, his principal assignment being as the education officer in Naples, Italy. While there, Dick learned to speak Italian fluently and enjoyed touring and photography. Upon his return to the United States, Dick initially wrote for education and hospital magazines but eventually joined the staff of the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation in White Plains, New York, where he worked for the next 40 years.

A natural writer and leader, Dick contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on genetics, and for several years worked as a volunteer in the White Plains Hospital emergency room. He also volunteered and saw action as a crew chief for the Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

Dick is remembered as remarkably intelligent, kind, and understanding. He had a genuinely positive influence on more lives than can be counted, including his Yale roommates, friends, co-workers, strangers he helped, and especially his family. The president of the March of Dimes said at his funeral: “We greatly admired Dick for his erudition, dedication to scientific accuracy, and compassion for families affected by prematurity and birth defects.” When Dick passed away, he held the position of Director of Science Information.

Dick married his college sweetheart, Linda Carpenter, in 1966. Together they had two daughters, Jennifer and Alison, but the marriage ended in divorced in 1998. Nevertheless, Dick and Linda remained cordial and on good terms until his death. Dick died peacefully on February 1, 2012 at his Westchester County home in Hartsdale where he had lived for many years. He is survived by two daughters, Jennifer Leavitt Wipf of Bethel, Conn., and Alison Khalaf of Brooklyn; three grandchildren, Michael and Diana Wipf and Gavin Khalaf and a brother, Edmund Leavitt of Seattle.

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Linda Carpenter remembers:

When I met Dick he was a junior at Yale — brilliant with a wicked sense of humor and a little bit wild. He would write me long witty letters full of arcane references, and I tried to respond in kind. I actually had to bone up on existentialists before our first date. Dick loved to dream up elaborate practical jokes. One targeted a conceited classmate who was very proud of his language ability. Dick, who worked in the Egyptology department at Yale, sent the guy a letter on department stationery purporting to be from a professor. It described a newly discovered island in the Nile inhabited by people who spoke ancient Egyptian and wrote in hieroglyphics and informed the student that he had been chosen to travel to Egypt and help decipher the language because of his outstanding linguistic ability. It directed the student to the biggest jock fraternity at Yale where he was to present the letter and ask to be shown to the interview room. Needless to say the fraternity brothers were less credulous than Dick’s victim.

After he graduated from Yale in 1966, the Army was after him, and we were relieved when he was accepted by Navy Officer Candidate School and thrilled when he was assigned shore duty in Naples. Not only would we be together, but we’d be living in Italy with the safety net of the American Hospital (where Jennifer was born) and Navy Exchange.

Dick loved to explore the back streets of Naples with his camera, and with his gift for languages, he soon became fluent in Italian.

Back in the U.S. Dick was on the regular Sunday night crew with the Scarsdale Volunteer Ambulance Corps for many years. He was always elated when he was able to save a life and very upset when the crew’s intervention failed. He loved the camaraderie of the corps members.

He also volunteered every week in the White Plains Hospital ER and learned a lot from observing doctors in action. One time when Ali was about 4, I pulled her by the arm — gently, I thought — when she was lagging behind as we left the library. She became very quiet on the way home. When I stopped at a store in Hartsdale the man at the counter asked her why she looked so sad. She said, “My mommy pulled me apart.” Horrified, I asked her what she meant and she pointed to her elbow. I called Dick. Luckily, he had seen a doctor cure a case of a minor injury called “nursemaid’s elbow” in the ER and knew just what to do. He hurried home and put Ali back together. With technical knowledge that he gained from working at the March of Dimes and the practical experience he gained as a volunteer and his talent for diagnosis, Dick would have made an excellent doctor if he had discovered these abilities earlier in life.

Sad to say, he was better at advising and helping others than he was at taking care of himself. Dick died at his Hartsdale. He was 67 years old.

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William W. Jones (1965) remembers:

I met Dick during my first hour at Yale when I went up to my assigned room in Vanderbilt Hall (I had elected “pot-luck” roommate assignment and thought that Yale admissions would have some genius plan in place for roommate assignments). Dick and his Boston parents were seated in a row facing the door as I entered. Apparently I was the second to arrive and this panel was going to decide if I was going to share a bedroom with Dick or with someone else. After a few brief questions I was consigned to the other bedroom. I learned later that it was my Midwest openness that had spooked them. By Thanksgiving I had become accepted as family.

Dick was quite simply the most intelligent and erudite person I have ever met, but without any attendant snobbishness. His vast warehouse of peripheral knowledge had no limits. He was, however, somewhat socially insecure as he had been promoted twice in his early education so that he was two years younger than most of us in his class. Also he was somewhat height challenged and built on a lean, wiry and surprisingly strong frame. He had tested out of virtually all of the Yale College graduation requirements except science so as a freshman he was enrolled in all graduate courses except Rocks and Stars. Unfortunately he was nevertheless unchallenged and essentially bored with academia.

This boredom led to an insatiable appetite and aptitude for practical jokes that he applied to friends, foes, and strangers. One usually caught on by the second time when Dick would hand you a telephone message to return a call to a potential girl friend or professor; when you dialed the number you reached the local FBI office. The statute of limitations has not yet run on many of his other pranks so I cannot discuss those but there is a reason why Dick knew the phone number for the FBI.

I am writing this Remembrance to acknowledge the incredible positive influence that Dick had on me and my Yale experience. I arrived at Yale as a legacy admission, knowing inside that I was not qualified by my high school experience to undertake a Yale curriculum. As it turns out my best asset was that I arrived at Yale with an electric typewriter that Dick coveted. It was such a joy for him to be able to type as quickly as his mind spewed out ideas. In sort of a barter arrangement he would offer to type my English assignment essays in final form after I had tried to put my thoughts down in a rough draft. He would of course “edit” as he typed, and in a collaborative process we would improve everything about the paper from idea and argument development to choice of words. We did this for my four years, and I was graduated with the very skills my Father had intended for me to acquire: to read and write well. As it turned out Yale Admissions did have a genius plan: Dick had become my personal tutor, the heart of my Yale education, and he provided the foundation for my own future success.

Finally, I would be remiss in not recalling his last prank directed at me. By senior year I had become somewhat blasé about weekly essay assignments for my English seminar. Having completed a fifteen page paper with our collaborative process Dick proceeded to retype it in final form. Being essentially lazy (I didn’t proof read the final product) and overly trusting I thought nothing of Dick’s offer to deliver the paper to my professor early the next morning so that I could sleep in. I did not actually attend many seminar classes so I was mildly alarmed when I received a call from my professor asking me to stop by his office for a chat. Before I headed over there Dick took me aside and mentioned that he may have included five or six pages of alcohol-enhanced “free-form” thoughts into the middle of my paper. I thought he was kidding and just trying to stoke my angst. However, when I sat down with the professor it became instantly clear that Dick had successfully sabotaged me. However, the professor was both concerned about my current mental health stability and somewhat in awe of what I had written. He wanted to engage me in discussing whatever it was that Dick had inserted. Instead of playing along (which Dick surely would have done), I told the professor that my roommate had snuck the material into my paper when he typed up the final draft. He was truly disappointed that he had not, in fact, discovered a new genius author/philosopher. He crossed out the big red A that he had written across the top, replaced it with a “gentleman’s C” and passed my paper back to me with a “good luck” adieu.

Laurence Walker remembers:
Dick was my roommate, along with Bill Jones, for three years in Davenport College. Originally with the class of ’65, Dick graduated with the class of ’66 after a year of absence.

The most persistent visual memory I have of Dick, the oracle of 1377, is of him customarily sitting at his desk with an electric typewriter, a mug of Guinness stout to his left, and an ashtray to his right with a cigarette smoke wafting upwards, with a long single-spaced letter spilling out over the edge of the machine. Occasionally, when he wasn’t writing about his many observations about life, he might attend to class work and bang out papers in a fraction of time that anyone else could. More amazing, he could compose his papers at the typewriter, completing it the first time through — the first draft being the final draft of the paper — and still get a grade of 90 or better!

Dick was extremely intelligent, highly intuitive, and captivating of any who engaged him in conversation, often impressing with a depth of knowledge far beyond normal comprehension. As a Russian studies major, Dick had a talent for language and became especially fluent in Russian while working one summer with several Russian immigrants on the MIT ground crew. However, his Russian studies professor was somewhat disturbed because he had picked up a Cossack accent!

Fond of pranks and practical jokes, Dick kept us alert with his many pranks, of which one either had to choose to be a helper, or otherwise become a victim. One of his best was the “electro-atrocity” which consisted of an old hand-cranked telephone generator. This generator was wired by way of two very fine gauge magnet wires, from our room into the bathroom, to behind the commode, and then up underneath the toilet seat, terminating as two short bare wires, one on each upper side of the seat, which were small enough to be virtually unnoticeable against the black plastic seat in the darkness of the toilet stall. The prank was complete when the unsuspecting victim entered the toilet stall and a quick crank of the generator delivered an instant shock, causing an instant scream from the victim, and laughs of hilarity by the perps!

Dick was an amazing friend, not only for his knowledge, but also for his insight into human interaction. I learned much from him and expected that someday he would become a famous novelist whom I could claim to know. But sadly, it was not to be; Dick passed away on Feb 1, 2012.