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Leila McKimmon Webster

Posted By Hall-Wynne On May 31, 2019 @ 8:51 am In Durham,Obituaries | 6 Comments

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.


Condolences for the family of “Leila McKimmon Webster”

Condolence from Wallace Kaufman on June 1st, 2019 7:00 pm

Leila and I worked together on economic surveys of new manufacturers in Central Europe. She was my boss–tough, fair, creative, willing to take a chance on someone without the usual credentials. A few years later I wrote a profile of Leila for the UNC Alumni Review. The long piece begins while we are riding a train through Poland. It ends like this:

One of the things she constantly thinks about is her roots in North Carolina. They have been the source of her success, and she says if she changes careers again, she will come home again. She has never sold the house she built in Chatham County. “My brain is in Washington, but my heart is in North Carolina,” she says.

Our train ride interview ends like this a half-hour out of Warsaw. We have spent two days in Gdansk, the city where Solidarity opened the first great crack in the Communist world, a city that for a thousand years has sheltered a strong intellectual and commercial culture. It is the kind of place that makes America seem young, naive, and innocent. And yet when Leila Webster recalls her journey from Conover to the World Bank, I have to believe that stories about a girl playing basketball in Conover, a broken¬hearted student entering the Peace Corps, and a woman in midlife challenging her first course in economics explain why the World Bank is in America, not Europe.

Condolence from Rex Schaberg on June 14th, 2019 6:30 pm

Hi Wally, thanks for sharing. I know you and Leila shared a long history of collaboration and friendship.

Condolence from Rex Schaberg on June 14th, 2019 7:16 pm

Leila and I became very close during college and maintained a close (if episodic) friendship for the next 35 years. It was an honor and a privilege to know her and be her friend. She enriched my life in ways too numerous to recount.

I knew her as a women who always sought intellectual and professional challenge. She had a lively, probing mind, and was always a charming and engaging companion. She also worked hard to achieve a spiritual and emotional grounding to counterbalance the rigors of her professional live — I hope her writings and her involvement in the Zen community allowed her to find that balance as she approached the end of her life.

Leila, from now on, the sky will be a little less blue, knowing that we can no longer share it.

RIP, Leila McKimmon Webster.

Condolence from Helen Cobler on July 16th, 2019 2:43 pm

Leila and I practiced yoga together over the yrs. I was her teacher but in actual fact she taught me so much about life. I am happy that she no longer had to fight cancer anymore. I saw her a few months ago and her health had declined but she was still the same corageous woman she was.

Condolence from Paul Paquette on July 29th, 2019 5:32 pm

I just found out about Leila’s passing last May. We were in the same Peace Corps Group in Thailand. What a wonderful life force she was. We had many wonderful talks during our years in Peace Corps. I’ll look forward to reading her Memoire when it is released.
She was an independent, one-of-a-kind personality. I wish you all comfort in the wonderful memories you have of a life well-lived.
Paul Paquette

Condolence from Debbie Overeynder on July 29th, 2019 8:11 pm

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer with Leila in Thailand and stayed on for a third year in Thailand and was assigned to the Bangkok School for the Blind. She has an amazing legacy. How can I get a copy of the book she wrote, Gems in the Hem of My Skirt?

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