Chapel Hill: Obituaries

Diane Ruth Leonard

“We may, indeed, say that the hour of death is uncertain, but when we say so we represent that hour to ourselves as situated in a vague and remote expanse of time, it never occurs to us that it can have any connection with the day that has already dawned, or may signify that death…may occur this very afternoon, so far from uncertain, this afternoon every hour of which has already been allotted to some occupation.” (Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way). Proust and Ruskin scholar, Diane R. Leonard was eagerly anticipating Sunday, September 10, 2017, with a certainty that every hour would be filled with welcome occupations. Her beloved son was due to come home after a stay in the hospital, and she was looking forward to spending the day with him. Diane awoke very early in the morning, just long enough to finalize plans for Kevin’s homecoming with her daughter, Kim. Plans confirmed, she returned to sleep to rest for the busy day ahead. She died tragically and unexpectedly during that morning nap. Diane was born on August 13, 1944, in Paintsville, Kentucky. She grew up in a household with a very loving extended family that instilled in her a deep sense of commitment to family and community. Extremely influential in her upbringing were her grandmother, Ruth Long Wells, first woman attorney in Johnson County, KY, and mother, Miriam Leonard, respected local business woman. Both women were deeply devoted to their families. Ruth was described in her obituary as a symbol of courage and high fidelity to purpose, words that applied equally well to her granddaughter and qualities that defined Diane’s life. She graduated magna cum laude in English and French from Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Her success in college was more remarkable because she managed it while raising two young children. Diane’s family expected her to take a job as a high school teacher, but she surprised them by announcing her intention to continue her studies instead. She took an unusual path for women in 1965 by moving her young children so that she could enter the graduate program in comparative literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She completed her Ph.D. in 1971 then moved to Missouri to join the English faculty at Stephens College before returning to Chapel Hill in 1973 to join the faculty at her alma mater. Diane was a beloved professor in UNC’s Comparative Literature Program for 44 years, retiring only very reluctantly in 2015 due to declining health. She was fortunate to find close and valued friends during her years at Chapel Hill. Most important was her mentor and lifelong friend, Eugene Falk, professor of comparative literature. He recognized in Diane a quick mind and pushed her to follow her work on Proust and Ruskin. He was always on hand to offer gentle criticisms and an editor’s eye for her scholarship. After his death in 2000, Diane worked tirelessly to keep alive the legacy of UNC’s world-class comparative literature program brought into prominence through the efforts of Eugene Falk and his close colleague, Werner Friederich, another of Diane’s mentors. She was tremendously dedicated to her students and her teaching reflected her broad interests, lively curiosity, and passion for sharing the full expanse of scholarship in her field. She taught comparative literature courses on a wide variety of topics, including modernist/postmodernist narrative, twentieth-century drama, literature and the visual arts, and the concept of the fourth dimension in mathematics, art and literature. Her favorite subjects were Marcel Proust, on whose work she was a respected expert, John Ruskin, and modern women writers, particularly Virginia Woolf. Diane was a pioneer in the area of literature and architecture, and her research focus included analysis of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu in its relation to the writings of John Ruskin, showing to what extent Ruskin’s texts on the visual arts constitute the central elements out of which Proust constructed his narrative. As part of the project, Diane translated and edited a volume of Proust's essays and letters on Ruskin, including a critical introduction and extensive bibliography, and published numerous articles on the topic both in the U.S. and abroad. She was a member of the équipe Proust of the Institut des Textes et Manuscrits Modernes in Paris, and some of the most valued times of Diane’s life were the sabbaticals and summers she spent working in France with other scholars in collaborative research on Proust’s manuscripts. The results of her work in France were personally and professionally very important to her. She made treasured lifelong friendships among her colleagues and collaborations with them led to a number of publications including the Dictionnaire Marcel Proust and the Cambridge Companion to Proust, and symposia such as the Colloque de Cérisy’s “Nouvelles directions de la recherche proustienne” and the University of Illinois’ "Proust 2000" conference, the Universities of Bordeaux and Reims Proust et les “Moyen Âge” (2015). Diane also contributed to the Bulletin d’informations proustiennes and the Revue d'études proustiennes. She was part of an international collaborative project to transcribe, edit, and digitize Proust’s 75 handwritten and lengthy manuscripts for the Recherche. The Dictionnaire Proust-Ruskin (2017) that came out just a few months ago dedicates an entire entry to Diane’s work. She was also a Companion of The Guild of St. George, the organization founded by Ruskin in the 1870s which he designed to fight the ills of the Industrial Revolution and introduce what, today, we would call “organic” ways of life. With other members of the modern version of the Guild, Diane and her son Kevin, took several trips to Europe along what Ruskin called his “Old Road” through the great cultural places of France and the glories of the Alps. She loved the experience and delighted all who traveled with her. Diane balanced her teaching and research with extensive service to the university community she so loved. As examples, she served as both Chair and Director of Graduate Studies in Comparative Literature. She was also editor of UNC Studies in Comparative Literature. She had a great zest for life, with a love of travel, art, good food, and dance. While she enjoyed watching dance, she also found great joy in participating in Chapel Hill’s folk-dancing group. She adored North Carolina’s Sunset Beach and spent many happy summers there. Learning of Diane’s passing, cousin Susan Marnell Weaver wrote: “She was one of a kind…warm, personable, compassionate/caring, intelligent, witty, logical, patient, thoughtful, organized, elegant and more.” The ‘more’ represented all the delightful contrasts that made her one of a kind. She was a scholar of great literature who also avidly read murder mysteries, especially the classics by Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. Strongly patriotic, she also adored France and dreamed of retiring there (a dream unrealized only because of ill health). She is survived by her two children, Kim Wells, of Alexandria, VA, and Kevin Hinkle, Chapel Hill, NC, her brothers, David Leonard, Greenfield, MA and Dan Leonard, Springfield, VA, sisters Melinda Thompson, Vienna, VA, and Carrie Leonard, Delray Beach, FL, and many beloved nieces and nephews living throughout the east coast and beyond. Her two surviving cousins, Peggy Wells, Lexington, KY, and Kendrick Wells, Louisville, KY, were childhood companions and she loved them like a sister and brother. Diane was preceded in death by her beloved parents, her mother, Miriam Leonard, and father, Daniel Leonard. Services to celebrate Dr. Diane Leonard’s life were held at the University United Methodist Church ( on Saturday, September 30, 2017 at 3:00 p.m. Address: 150 E. Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514; phone: 919-929-7191. A reception followed. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to a UNC fund set up in the name of Dr. Diane Leonard to commemorate her extensive legacy in the Comparative Literature Program at Chapel Hill. The fund has been established to encourage ongoing study in the field she loved; donate either by check or online. Checks should be made out to the "Arts and Sciences Foundation” with a note in the memo line that the gift is intended for the “Comparative Literature in honor of Diane R. Leonard” and sent to: The Arts and Sciences Foundation, Buchan House, 523 E. Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514. To donate online go to <a href="" target="_new"></a> and, in the comment section, state that it is intended for “Comparative Literature in honor of Diane R. Leonard.” Diane was a strong supporter of the Christian Appalachian Project too and donations can be made in her memory to the project by sending a check to the Christian Appalachian Project, 2528 Palumbo Drive, Lexington, KY 40509. Indicate that the gift is in memory of Dr. Diane Leonard.