Generous friend, devoted partner, and consummate professional, Leila McKimmon Webster transitioned to the afterlife on May 22, 2019. She was surrounded by loved ones. Leila was admired for her integrity, intense focus, lively mind and commitment to tough challenges. She lived in this world as a respected, thoroughgoing professional, a loyal friend, and, in the words of close friends, she was at once inspiring, courageous, persistent, original, purposeful, compassionate, hard-working, optimistic and ever-curious. Even when facing death, Leila’s expressed a deep curiosity about what was next. Leila is survived by a wide circle of friends from around the globe, her three siblings (Mary Hull Webster, Diane Terrie Webster and Arthur McKimmon Webster), and her beloved cat, Rosie. She will be buried next to her partner who predeceased her, William Andrew Russo, in a tomb she designed with a Chatham County potter and a local cabinet-maker.
Leila’s professional career reveals her deep commitment to human rights. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand in the early-1970s, she taught for two years at a school for the blind. Her forthcoming memoir, Gems in the Hem of My Skirt, traces in bracing detail her transition from the Peace Corps to a highly competent, multilingual professional hired by the US Embassy in Thailand a year after the Vietnam War. At 25, she was named Section Chief of the Indochinese Refugee Office where she assumed a key leadership role on a five-member team that re-settled 11,000 Lao citizens who had supported the American military effort. This heroic work enabled Lao families to begin new lives after a devastating war. Leila worked 19 years for the World Bank, helping, among others, rural African women entrepreneurs begin and grow their businesses. For the last several years, she was a valued advisor to the Jamaican National Small Business Bank.
It was clear to all who knew Leila that she was deeply invested in people in desperate conditions who needed a hand. From battered women in Chatham Co. to Lao refugees, to rural African women to Vietnamese entrepreneurs, it was Leila’s perseverance that so positively impacted thousands of people. When Hillary Clinton was educating herself in the 1990s about realities facing African women, Leila was selected to oversee the training. In addition to her many accomplishments abroad, she co-founded the Family Violence and Rape Crisis of Chatham County. As a scholar and researcher, she authored some 15 papers published by the World Bank, a book on West African microfinance, and five articles published in international Economics journals. She held master degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and UNC-Chapel Hill, an MBA from Georgetown University, and an undergraduate degree in English and Sociology from UNC-Chapel Hill. She spoke Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, and French.
Apart from her career accomplishments, Leila developed deep Buddhist roots, originating with her residence in a Thai Buddhist temple. Leila played a mean second base for the 1982 He’s Not Here softball team in the Chapel Hill Women’s Recreational League. She continued to be active on the boards of Second Bloom of Chatham, Inc. and the North Carolina Zen Center. In the last chapter of her life, she kept a promise to herself to “circle back” and write about a life that was fast, meaningful and uniquely focused. She dove into the craft of memoir writing and faithfully attended her Thursday night writing group. A private funeral is being planned by her friends as is a non-alcoholic toast in her memory at her Thursday night writing group.