Remembering Vice Chancellor Pat Leonard

For as long as I've been here, the culture has been about helping students be successful. In Student Affairs, that's who we are and what we're about. Vice Chancellor Pat Leonard - May 28, 1955 - June 20, 2020.
Collage of Photos of Pat and Students
Pat at Commencement
Pat with students at Upperman event
Housing Groundbreaking Photo of Student Affairs Division
Pat overlooking amphitheater
VC Pat Leonard signing building

Those wishing to reflect on Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Pat Leonard and her legacy are encouraged to visit UNCW’s Fisher Memorial Garden, located near the campus commons and the Clock Tower, which meant so much to our beloved “VCPL." As the 2020-21 academic year progresses, more information will be shared regarding any campus tributes and memorial services planned for the Vice Chancellor. 

UNCW remembers self-described “ordinary person” who inspired extraordinary student experiences

 August 11, 2020

Pat looked at opportunities, not obstacles. She looked at possibilities and worked diligently to bring positive change to anything she tackled.” -- Jack Barto, former CEO, New Hanover Regional Medical Center 

black and white portrait of VC Pat Leonard early in her careerDuring her countless addresses to students through the years, Vice Chancellor Pat Leonard frequently shared this quote: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” For more than three decades, VC Leonard embodied those words through her work in student affairs at UNCW and in her service to the Wilmington community.  

She developed programs to foster a sense of community while also lending her talents to help others beyond the campus borders by serving on numerous advisory councils and boards at local and national levels. VC Leonard, fondly known as “VCPL” by thousands of students, passed away peacefully in her Carolina Beach home on June 2.  

A first-generation college student, VC Leonard became involved in student affairs as an undergraduate at Misericordia University, a Catholic liberal arts university in Pennsylvania. It was through her experience as a resident assistant that she made the connection between student engagement and student success. This led her to pursue her master’s degree in college student personnel administration at Michigan State University. In 1993, she received an honorary Doctor of Public Administration, Honoris Causa, from Misericordia. 

She began her career in higher education as a residence life coordinator at UNC Charlotte. She later joined Miami University of Ohio as an area coordinator and instructor before joining UNCW in 1983 as the associate dean of students. She was named Dean of Students in 1987, and later selected as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs in 1996, a position she held for 24 years. Working with five different Chancellors, she was the longest serving Vice Chancellor at UNCW. When she first arrived at UNCW, the university was considered a “suitcase campus” with 28 buildings and limited co-curricular programs for students.  

“She was determined to change the culture of the campus, to make it more residential, to create traditions and to really provide students with a more fully rounded collegiate experience,” said Susan Vanecek, Vice Chancellor Leonard’s wife. 

Over the next 37 years, VC Leonard focused on building opportunities to help Seahawks not only grow and excel during their time at UNCW, but also after they left. She adopted the motto for the division, “Creating Experiences for Life,” to convey her staff’s commitment to helping students develop strong, positive habits to carry with them long after their days at UNCW.  

Vice Chancellor Leonard created traditions that became ingrained in the university’s culture, including the much-beloved Move-In event, when hundreds of campus and community volunteers help first-year students move into the residence halls, and “Teal Tuesday,” a moniker for a day of the week dedicated to celebrating Seahawk spirit. The vice chancellor also sought personal ways to engage students, like monthly breakfasts with Student Government Association leaders and cornhole games with students on Hoggard Lawn. "Pat was an extraordinary person who considered herself quite ordinary, and there will never be another like her," said Chancellor Sartarelli. 

She was as tenacious and dedicated to her efficacy as an administrator as she was to her Seahawks. Leading a division of approximately 175 staff and 900 student employees with a $37 million dollar budget, she played a pivotal role in managing and planning the dramatic growth and success experienced by UNCW, including enrollment tripling to more than 17,000 students. VC Leonard was integrally involved in overseeing 20 major construction, renovation and green space projects that transformed the UNCW campus, including seven housing projects and nine student support buildings, as well as the Student Recreation Center, Fisher Student Center, Fisher University Union, DePaolo Hall, the Burney Center and the Warwick Center. 

“Many buildings on this campus didn’t just spring up around Pat during her decades here,” according to the university. “They sprang up because of her vision and her collaboration with others, and because of her fierce and unwavering commitment to giving our students every possible opportunity to learn, grow, create their path and solidify their purpose.” 

In February 2019, university officials broke ground on the new Student Housing Village, a $147 million project that will house 1,814 students. Sandpiper and Pelican Halls opened this fall; the other two are scheduled to open in the fall of 2021. The village will include a student success center where students will find academic, advising and career assistance; two classrooms and two makerspaces; dining venues on a vibrant market-like street and a connecting path that will guide students to Chancellor’s Walk and the academic heart of campus. It was among the last projects VC Leonard oversaw. 

Mary Gornto, former vice chancellor for university advancement, was impressed by VC Leonard’s vision for the university.  

“She recognized the need for upperclassman housing and led the efforts that resulted in Seahawk Village and Seahawk Crossing, which contributed not just to the environment on campus, but also to the upperclassmen’s connection to the university being even stronger once they graduated and became our alumni,” Gornto said.  

The 65,000-square-foot Student Recreation Center, built in 2000, was among the projects VC Leonard was most proud of, said James R. Leutze, who served as chancellor from 1990-2003. The former recreation facility, Hanover Hall Gym, was a 50-foot by 20-foot room with an exercise bike, some iron weights and a few other pieces of equipment, he explained. A major expansion and renovation of the Student Recreation Center, funded by student fees, was completed in 2013, which more than doubled the size of the facility.  

“Pat leaves a concrete legacy in bricks and mortar, but I think that she has established the principle of the significance of students to the university. For many people, the students are not the first priority,” said Leutze, citing construction, new programs, more faculty or more fundraising as items that often get increased attention. “Pat kept it constantly in our minds that the students are our first priority; we are here to serve the students.”  

Students recognized her devotion. Shane Fernando ’00 pitched the idea of a clock tower to VC Leonard as a senior class gift after being elected junior class president. While other administrators were lukewarm to the idea, VC Leonard immediately asked what she could do to help.  

“She truly believed in me and my fellow students,” Fernando recalled. “She was there throughout the journey to get the clock tower. We see it there now, but it hit so many barriers along the way, whether it was funding, hurricanes or internal red tape. We overcame each obstacle through Pat’s guidance and confidence. There would not be a clock tower on campus if it weren’t for her. It’s truly a testament to the vice chancellor’s lifelong work, her spirit and attitude, and the thousands upon thousands of students she empowered and whose lives she changed for the better,” he said. “She believed fully in the ability of what a student can achieve given the right tools and support structure. That’s an amazing legacy that she left. I know she changed my life.” 

About 90 percent of UNCW alumni graduated during Ms. Leonard’s tenure at UNCW. A majority met her at orientation or heard her speak at convocation, student leaders’ meetings or events.  

VC Leonard was present in many areas on campus. She helped create spaces for several cultural centers, advocated for living and learning communities in residence halls, and supported programming that earned UNCW recognition as a military-friendly school. Under her leadership, the CARE office (Collaboration for Assault Response & Education) received national recognition, and UNCW was one of 18 universities recognized among 2017 and 2020’s “Most Promising Places to Work in Student Affairs” by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education magazine. VC Leonard was also known for her steady, calm leadership during hurricanes, ice storms and other challenging circumstances. 

Her record of service and dedication to UNCW and its students was recognized in 2019 when she received the William C. Friday Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Student Governments of NC. Those who worked under VC Leonard describe her as a consummate mentor not only to her staff, but also to students and community members. 

“She really tried to make sure that no student was overlooked under her care,” said Dean of Students Mike Walker. “I think that was part of her mission, that her staff made sure we had our eyes open to the needs of all UNCW students and not just some.”  

Cole Tillett '20, who served as Student Government President during the 2018-19 academic year, nominated Vice Chancellor Leonard for the award. 

“I was amazed that someone had so much empathy and concern for students,” he said. “VCPL was everything you could want in an administrator and friend. She led by example and was able to show me how to become a leader, how to learn, listen and to be someone who can make effective change." 

“She encouraged people to do their very best wherever they were, whatever group, community or business they were engaged in,” said Brian Victor, the former associate vice chancellor for student affairs under VC Leonard who now serves as interim vice chancellor for the division. “The ability to work under and to learn from her, particularly given that she was a long-standing leader in student affairs, is among the few things that convinced me to give up my career in Washington, D.C. and to come here 10 years ago. Pat taught me the value of reaching across campus and getting to know everyone and how those personal relationships were the fabric that made things change.” 

VC Leonard reached beyond divisional lines to provide leadership and insight, often working hand-in-hand with the Division of Academic Affairs and other units. “She felt very strongly that Student Affairs should be an important contributor to the student success trajectory, starting from admissions through their time on campus and onto graduation and careers,” said Victor.  

Kate Bruce, professor of psychology and former director of Honors College, said the collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs was an integral part of VC Leonard’s vision of student success.  

“She realized that you can’t achieve that [success] with silos: Student Affairs doing programs and Academic Affairs with curriculum,” said Bruce, who first met VC Leonard in 1984. “She looked for ways for Student Affairs and Academic Affairs could partner. She worked a lot with learning communities, where we bring faculty into the residence halls to teach classes and emphasize community. She was very supportive of that and certainly supportive of honors curricula.” 

Bruce also expressed appreciation of VC Leonard’s support of faculty in big and small ways. VC Leonard started the practice of sending letters to faculty and staff to thank them for their support of students. Graduating students would submit names of faculty or staff who made a difference during their time at UNCW.  

“I know faculty appreciated getting the letters,” said Bruce. “She would always time it so it hit right when she thought people needed to hear it to give them a little boost and to remind them that students think they make a difference. It was the little things like that – subtle, but impactful.”  

In 2013, VC Leonard received the John Jones Award for Outstanding Performance as a Chief Student Affairs Officer by NASPA. In 2017, she was inducted into the Order of the Isaac Bear, founded in 1988 by former Chancellor William H. Wagoner to recognize individuals "who have demonstrated loyalty to UNCW, contributed to the academic quality of the university or had a significant role in uniting the institution and the community." 

In January 2019, VC Leonard was appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper to serve on the North Carolina State Health Coordinating Council. She served on the UNC General Administration Campus Safety Initiative Work Group; and worked as a consultant to the United States Department of Education on various student issues. In her role as a national leader in Student Affairs, she spoke at local and national conferences on topics such as substance abuse, student behavior, violence against women, assessment, strategic planning, and leadership.  

In the Wilmington community, she served on the New Hanover Regional Medical Center board for 13 years, where she chaired the board's Quality Committee and was instrumental in the medical center's growth of services. She also served on the board of Coastal Horizons for a decade, including two years as board president. Other service to the local community included serving on the board of directors for the Cape Fear Area United Way, American Red Cross, Cape Fear Chapter, and the Cape Fear Rape Crisis Center. Additional service to New Hanover County included being on the NHC Task Force for Drug Abuse and NHC Human Relations Commission which she chaired.

“Pat’s legacy is one of selfless service,” said Jack Barto, former CEO of New Hanover Regional Medical Center. “She never had a personal agenda and always placed our hospital’s needs first. Pat looked at opportunities, not obstacles. She looked at possibilities and worked diligently to bring positive change to anything she tackled.” 

Wilma W. Daniels, who served on the UNCW Board of Trustees from 2008 until 2019, described VC Leonard as a caring, loving person who motivated people and was always willing to lend a helping hand.  

“Pat had such a caring spirit about her and it came through in her actions, the way she handled things and how she treated people,” said Ms. Daniels. “That’s the legacy that she has left behind: live with purpose and do what you can to make a difference.” 

After a long pause, Ms. Daniels said it will be hard to walk on campus and not see VC Leonard interacting with students, staff and faculty, grabbing a meal at Wag or coffee at the Fisher Student Center. 

“Just to think that Pat is not here, that’s a lot,” she said. “I’m not worried about where Pat is. I know where she is and I believe she’s probably up there saying, ‘Now, what can I do to make a difference up here?’”


Pat’s wish to establish The Vice Chancellor Pat Leonard Legacy of Excellence Fund will provide support for future generations of Seahawk leaders. To learn more about how you can make a gift in her honor, visit

-- Venita Jenkins