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Leslie V. Forte: the woman behind the name on the scholarship – Obituary

Her life was a struggle. She grew up poor in the gritty projects of
Los Angeles. She left California a well-educated woman with an
associate’s degree from a community college, a master’s degree from
Stanford University and an effervescent love for teaching.

Leslie V. Forte moved to Virginia, where she became the first
African American to teach English at Northern Virginia Community
College. She founded an African American literature course there and
several years later, this woman — who put herself through school on
dreams and hard work and scholarships, who put great faith in community
colleges, and who “brought herself up by her bootstraps,” as she used
to say — learned that she had leukemia.

But she kept teaching and kept fretting over why particular
students fell behind in class. She kept wondering how to reach others
in her lectures. And she kept taking chemotherapy for the cancer. She
continued teaching at Northern Virginia until the end — when her
illness forced her into the hospital and then claimed her life on Aug.
30, 1982 at the age of thirty-four.

Now fifteen years later, Forte’s name, if not her untold story of
courage, is about to burst onto the national scene as part of another
bitter struggle for survival — this one over the uncertain future of
affirmative action on college campuses.

“I think Leslie Forte would be proud that her name is on this
scholarship,” says a longtime friend, Lynn Casablanca, an assistant
English professor at Northern Virginia. “She believed one of the
missions of community colleges is to help disadvantaged students get an
education. I think it’s a noble purpose and I’m sure she would, too.”

Merle Thompson, the college’s assistant division chair for English,
recalls that Forte was a popular teacher with students and “had a
terrific sense of humor.”

“Sometimes instructors who teach at community colleges feel put
down or that they should really be teaching at universities,” she says.
“Leslie was not one of those. She felt she was where she belonged. “

After Forte’s death, Thompson recalls, faculty members who knew her
held a memorial luncheon for her. With the $200 left over, they started
the Leslie V. Forte Scholarship.

Wistar Withers, an associate professor and counselor and another
friend of Forte’s, served with her on the college’s affirmative action
team. He says Forte’s memory inspired them to start the scholarship
because she was a perfect role model for minority students.

“We wanted to honor a respected member of our faculty,” he says.

According to Withers, the scholarship fund has been kept alive over
the years by Northern Virginia faculty and staff who hold annual
walk-a-thons, luncheons and silent auctions.

“People have donated everything from A to Z for the
auctions–kitchen appliances, water pitchers, books. I still have a
coffee pot I bought one year,” he says.

“Leslie was a very outgoing and committed person,” he adds. “Since
she herself was a community college graduate, I think she would be
pleased to know we were doing this in her name.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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