Columbus Neighborhoods history intern Yi Guo interviews Colin and Barbara LeVeque about the life and legacy of Colin’s mother, Katherine LeVeque.
Talk about Katherine LeVeque’s youth and how she married into the LeVeque family.
Colin: She’s from the South, and she went to Barbizon School for Women in New York City, which was a finishing school, right?
Barbara: I think so, and it was also a place that women could stay when they went to New York.
Colin: So when she was young, she was at the Barbizon School in New York, and my dad, who was attending Princeton University, was going to New York City. And some common friends decided to do a double date.
They had their first date there, and then it took off from there. And he would go see her in South Carolina and finally asked her to marry him. And they got married and moved. She moved to Columbus, and they first stayed in a condo apartment community, Olentangy Village Apartments.
Then the big decision was where do they go from there. And my dad wanted to go to Bexley, and my mom wanted to live on a big farm. She had been a horseback rider, and so was my dad. She won that battle, and they moved way outside on a big farm, north of Westerville. They had five children there, and that’s where I grew up.
How did Katherine LeVeque become the president of the prominent Columbus real estate group the LeVeque Enterprise?
Colin: My father died in a plane crash when he was 49 years old.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Colin: He was President of Leveque Enterprises and running the businesses, and my mom was a housewife raising five children. When my dad died, it was devastating for my mom. I mean, 49 is not very old.
I remember we were having breakfast – and my older brother had been helping to keep the businesses together during this period of time – and my mom read in The Columbus Dispatch that we were doing drillings and borings in the Palace Theatre to tear it down to put up a parking garage.
I remember it to this day. We’re all sitting at the breakfast table and she goes, “That is not happening!” And so that got her to start going downtown to save the Palace Theatre and renovate it. And then from there, she started to get involved in our companies.
Barbara: I think for many women, she really kind of broke a glass ceiling. And what was amazing about her is that she really had no education for it. So she took it upon herself to really meet with businessmen and educate herself. I always say she kind of lured at the foot of other masters.
And I thought that was really amazing on her part, that she would go, “OK, you know, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know who does,” and her forward thinking about Downtown and bringing it life. If she could see what was happening Downtown right now, she would be so happy because she always advocated for Downtown living.
Because of that kind of visionary that she was, she would acknowledge that they needed women on boards. There weren’t very many women working. She was placed on many boards and really grew in prominence.
Colin: She always said about a city that it’s only as strong as its core – and its core meaning the downtown. So she was always a believer that you have to keep a strong downtown.
Barbara: And she was also a firm believer in, in having people live in the downtown.
Colin: Right. She always said, “Hey, you need a 24-hour city.” And it’s taken Columbus a while to get there, but she saw that. That’s why the Palace Theatre was so important to her – because she thought having a theater downtown brings people downtown at night. And then they’re going stay, go to a restaurant, or they’re going to stay in a hotel. They’re going to spend money in the downtown community, build that strength.
Barbara: Way ahead of her time, I think.
Colin: Very important, and now we see the Downtown with new downtown living, new restaurants, new everything.
Barbara: She kind of lived by what she espoused, in that she had an apartment in the (LeVeque) Tower. She didn’t really live there, but she kind of put her money where her mouth was. And she thought, I’ll take this whole floor, and I’ll make it so that I can stay here if I want to.
So she had her own strategy to attract people, to get people downtown and to become consumers of Downtown.
And that improves the economy.
Colin: Yes. And she always felt that arts were really an important part of that and having a strong arts program was really important to any community. And it brings community together, and then it also adds to the economy. I mean, sometimes, you know, people look at the arts and they go, “Who cares about that?” Right?
Colin: But she really was right. It does bring people together. They’re together in that theater, different types of people – whether they come from this part of the city or that part of the city. Now they come together, and they can see the downtown and then that becomes part of their life.
Barbara: She really was a visionary. Today she would be called a disrupter, I think.
Colin: She was strong-willed, but she was also very gracious. One of the things she was great at was, when she would have a meeting – whether it was business associates or whoever it was – she would have a nice, beautiful spread of food. She would start talking to you and say, “So, where are you from? How are you doing? How many kids do you have?” She would embrace that person so then, when she asked them for what she really wanted, which might have been –
Barbara: A bunch of money for the theater.
Colin: Money for the theater. Their barriers were so down that they would say yes. If she was talking to a bank, she would bring the bank in and she’d give them biscuits and all this kind of stuff. And then they would be so happy that when she asked them for something, they’d go, “Oh, OK.” People had trouble saying no to her.
Barbara: Yes, she was beloved.
Colin: I remember when I went away to college and I would come back to Columbus. And I remember going, “Hey, Mom, what’s going on today?” And she would say, “Well, I’m giving the commencement speech at Franklin University.” And I would go, “What? You’re my mom.” It was amazing to me to see the transition. I don’t know how she got the courage because she wasn’t a Downtown person; she wasn’t a businessperson.
What was her motto?
Colin: “Charge and fight.” But she doesn’t mean “fight” like fight. She means get up.
Barbara: Move on.
Colin: And the other thing that was always amazing: my mom was an eternal optimist, too. It could be pouring down rain and you’d go, “Mom, it’s raining.” And she’d go, “Oh, the sun’s going to come out soon.” And we’d be like, “What? Oh, Mom, are you crazy?”
She loved to play tennis. She was a big tennis player, and we had a tennis court at our house. And it would be raining, and she’d want to play tennis. And she’d go, “It’s going to clear up. We’re going to be out there playing soon.” She was that way.
Why was saving the Palace Theatre so important for her?
Colin: She loved plays, and she loved musicals. When we were growing up, she would play musicals all the time while she was cooking. And we would go to New York City on trips, and we’d always go to a musical.
I think that was why her cause was to redo the Palace. It had been totally abandoned, so she walked in and could see the beautiful ceiling. She could see how beautiful it could be, and she wanted to bring it back to its original life.
Barbara: There’s a great picture of her riding an elephant through downtown Columbus, promoting a show that was coming to the Palace Theatre. It was for the Ringling Bros.
She had to enlarge the stage to bring the circus in, but she wanted it to come. The stage manager said, “Well, we can’t fit them in.” And she looked at him and just said, “Make it work.”
Barbara: There’s that will.
Colin: “The show must go on!” It wasn’t a matter of how much money it was going to cost. It was that we need to bring it; we need to do it.
When the Palace Theatre was being revived, were there any troubles that she met?
Colin: Well, at first all the advisors said no because it was going to take money to do and, you know, there wasn’t a return. It was just a gift.
Barbara: For the city.
Colin: It’s a nonprofit, right, and so they were against that. So that was a battle for her. Then the LeVeque Tower was purchased by my grandfather back in the ’40s. My dad died in a plane crash; my grandfather also died in a plane crash.
Barbara: We don’t fly – together.
Colin: My grandfather died at age 50, so the building went into a trust owned by my dad and his siblings. But my dad died while it was in the trust. So my mom’s goal was to buy the building, and it was a battle. Nobody wanted to sell it to her. And Downtown was dead, so it wasn’t really a great business move.
She just decided to go ahead and do it, and she did it. And the day we were closing on the building – this is no lie – the elevators stopped working. We hadn’t closed yet, and we needed to get all the documents that were up on the 41st floor. So she had to climb 41 floors up to the top.
Barbara: No way!
Colin: Yeah, this is the truth. This is true. And she did it.
Barbara: Charge and fight.
Colin: Right but my mom, one of the things she did recognize is that she wasn’t the expert, so she would get people that knew their jobs. So if it was somebody that knew how to renovate a theater, she was on the phone to New York, being gracious, saying, “Well, how you doing?” And by the end of the conversation, he was coming to Columbus to work for her, to do the theater. So that’s how she did it. She would talk to the expert.
Barbara: She was magical.
Colin: Yes. Their passion would develop because she had the passion.
Barbara: And she would know everyone’s name.
Colin: Right, so the maintenance person cleaning a garage, she would say, “Hey, George, how you doing? How’s your son doing?” And she knew they were trying to get into college. She might write a letter or she might even help them with the finances. She would do little things that people didn’t know that she was doing all the time, all the time.
Babara: The stories that came to Colin and still continue to come to Colin about his mother, very touching. She had a family that cleaned for her and they had two daughters with serious disabilities and birth defects, but they were very artistic. She helped them to attend Otterbein University and helped them pay for their college.
Colin: She did.
Barbara: Yeah, so she was very generous that way, and she touched a lot of people.
How do you think her influence continues today?
Colin: I would say we look at her mark on downtown Columbus. I mean, she was involved in buildings Downtown – the one Columbus building on the corner of Broad and High (streets). Certainly, renovating the LeVeque Tower, the Palace Theatre and those kind of things, and I would say the biggest thing she did was being a prominent woman.
A long time ago, women weren’t as prominent. They weren’t put out in front, but my mom was a leader in front. I mean, she was standing right next to the man, not behind the man.
Barbara: And I think her other legacy is her love of her city and her giving back to Columbus. She broke the glass ceiling.
Colin: She took it to another level and said, “I’m going to build downtown. I’m going to stand equal with this board member and help Columbus grow.”
Thank you. It was nice to talk with you.
Colin: It was very nice to meet you.
Notable Women of Columbus
On this episode of Columbus Neighborhoods, we’re celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage with a look at remarkable Columbus women who made history. Five notable women of the present share the stories of five notable women of the past.