|Roger Lehecka, surrounded by some of his many fans. |
Credit: Eileen Barroso
The truly great ones always go out on top and Roger Lehecka, CC'67, is no exception. After capping his 30-plus-year career at Columbia as executive director of the highly successful 250th anniversary celebration, Lehecka has retired from the University but will continue to be actively involved in the Columbia community.
Known by generations of Columbia students, alumni and faculty as a man of great personal integrity, Lehecka has served as a mentor to many college students over the years, even those who were not much younger than he, from his early role on the College dean's staff through his 19 years as dean of students for the College.
Lehecka spent all but one year at Columbia after entering the gates as a first-year student in 1963. His legacy is as rich as his length of service. He was one of the founders of the Double Discovery Center, a program that offers college preparation and advice to under-resourced high school students. As dean of students in the 1980s, he worked to improve graduation rates from 75 percent to 90 percent over a period of six years. He was instrumental in the College's smooth transition to a coed institution, and he created Columbia's National Opportunity Program. In 1998, he became director of alumni programs and special advisor to the dean at Columbia College, and in 2001 he was part of the presidential search commission that brought Lee C. Bollinger to Columbia.
"Roger served Columbia College and its students selflessly, tirelessly and idealistically for two decades," said Austin E. Quigley, dean of Columbia College. "His responsibilities as dean of students were enormous, the challenges considerable and the achievements immense. His efforts to strengthen our Opportunity Programs and graduation rates, to facilitate the co-educational transition and to promote a fully residential community are only the most visible indicators of the work he did to make the lives of the students better and the quality of the education stronger. Everyone at Columbia College will always be grateful."
Along with his big accomplishments, Lehecka is equally revered for personally touching the lives of hundreds of College students as a mentor.
"I've had the satisfaction of knowing generations of bright and challenging students, of helping a few on their way to maturity, to responsible lives, to productive careers," reflects Lehecka. "My love for Columbia and my debt to it remain enormous. In my early years working here, I thought that in some modest way I was repaying Columbia for this wonderful education. That assumption was incorrect because the longer I've worked at Columbia the larger my debt has grown."
If his responsibilities to Columbia students weren't great enough, over the years Lehecka, along with his wife, Ria, has been involved with scholarship programs supported by various foundations and corporations, including The New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times and the Lenfest Foundation. Lehecka will continue his work helping to administer scholarship programs.
"Retirement" may not be the best word to describe this new phase of Lehecka's life. Many at Columbia need not say goodbye, since he will still be connected to his alma mater through his service on the boards of the Double Discovery Center, Columbia Community Service and Columbia Club of New York.
In addition, he will continue to be an ambassador for the University.
He has recently returned from meeting with alumni in Detroit and plans to head to New Orleans in the coming weeks to meet with alumni there. The one thing Lehecka hopes the next few months offer is the opportunity to spend quality time with his family.
At his retirement celebration, a group of alumni announced that they had raised more than $100,000 to establish and endow the Roger Lehecka Summer Fellowship, which will offer a stipend to a College junior who would otherwise not be able to accept an unpaid internship.
"Very rarely someone like Roger comes along who takes this relationship (with his alma mater) to a completely different level, virtually embodying the values of the College and University where he has served as an alumnus and as a senior administrator," President Lee C. Bollinger said at Lehecka's retirement party. "We can celebrate his visible achievements, but I know that his real work here is reflected in each student, each alumnus and each colleague he has influenced, comforted, counseled and encouraged. All of us who have been on the receiving end want to say thank you."
"Roger is so beloved by so many, a selfless mentor to generations," says Janet Frankston, CC'95, one of the organizers of the fundraising effort. "It is a pleasure for me and so many others to give back to him."
Perhaps Elaine Sisman, chair of the Department of Music, sums it up best: "As Roger now continues his work outside Columbia, he is taking the best of the Columbia he has learned as a student, alumnus, dean and brilliant programmatic innovator and sharing it outside the gates."