Michael Leff, chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Memphis, died Friday morning, February 5, after a brief illness. 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 his death. 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 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 Church Health Center, 1210 Peabody Ave., Memphis, TN 38104-4506. While we grieve his death, we will forever be grateful for his life. Canale Funeral Directors 901-452-6400
Published in The Commercial Appeal on Feb. 7, 2010.