Pioneering Path: Audrey Leef M.S. '47 transformed her Stevens graduate education into decades of guidance for mathematics students
It has been nearly 70 years, but the day she was accepted into Stevens is still clear as day for Audrey Vincentz Leef M.S. '47.
"The way I got in was a little unusual," she says with a smile. "But I'm glad I did. It just took a little nerve."
Stevens was a return to home for Leef, who had been raised in Hoboken and graduated as valedictorian from Hoboken's A.J. Demarest High School at the age of just 16.
Encouraged by one of her high school math teachers, Leef then studied mathematics at Montclair State University (then known as Montclair State Teachers College), receiving her bachelor's degree in 1943.
She traveled to two job interviews, one each at Morristown and Millburn's respective high schools.
"Morristown offered me $1,400 a year, and Millburn offered me $1,300 a year. My mother asked me, 'which one do you like better?' I said 'Millburn'. I had walked over a little bridge from the train station to get there. She said 'Then take that one!' "
Leef did, eventually becoming department head while raising the four children she and her husband adopted.
She then entered Stevens – after being accepted in rather unconventional fashion.
Her brother Chester C. Vincentz ’33, M.S. ’37 had been accepted to the university under a previously existing arrangement with Demarest High School, by which each year's top three graduating high school seniors received full scholarships to Stevens if they chose to matriculate.
Leef decided to try her luck at gaining admission to pursue master's studies, despite the overwhelming majority of men then studying at the Institute. (Although women were first admitted to undergraduate programs at Stevens in 1971, they were allowed to enroll in graduate coursework — at the university's discretion — decades earlier.)
"I went to meet the Dean, and told him I was Chet Vincent's little sister and said to him, 'how about letting me in?' And he looked at me and said, 'alright,' and that's how I got in," she remembers.
The time at Stevens, she adds, was "wonderful. Everyone treated me extremely fairly."
Leef would graduate Stevens with a master's degree in mathematics in 1947. And that's not all she found here: she also meet husband George "Bob" Leef M.S. '53, who was then just beginning his own master's studies.
Their courtship, however, began somewhat more practically than romantically: Leef admits she rode the train daily with him for protection.
"Back in those days, a girl did not walk alone along River Street," she laughs. "So I guess I just chose the tallest guys in class and walked along with them to the train station.
"Bob was tall. He was living in East Orange and I got off in Millburn. That's how it all started."
"When he told me he had been treasurer at his Sunday school in Minnesota," she chuckles.
They later adopted four children and have been married 65 years as of spring 2012.
Returning to Montclair
Montclair State soon came calling on Leef to recruit her to join its mathematics faculty. It took time, but the university eventually secured its prize recruit.
"Once I got our fourth child, Montclair was after me pretty hard," she admits, "but I was too busy cooking for her. Five years later, they said, 'she's got to be be in Kindergarten now?' and asked me again. So I went.
She would remain from 1966 until 'retiring' in 1992, though she remains a professor emerita. During that time, she taught thousands of students and also became an expert and frequent speaker on the subject of 'math anxiety'.
"Ninety percent of math is attitude and patience," explains Leef. "So many people are petrified of mathematics, and they shouldn't be. With the proper teaching, everybody can do math. You just have to be patient. I think that was probably my strong point when teaching, everywhere that I have taught: that I have cared very much for the students.
Leef encourages women, in particular, to persist in math studies.
"Women, especially, get to calculus and they're petrified, so they stop," she says. "Or they wear themselves out trying to juggling many things — children and careers and studies. I for one can certainly understand that!
"But I also want them to know that you can do it all… if you are passionate about it all. I always tell women that if you have any leaning toward mathematics at all, pursue it now. Don't put it off. It an open door for you, if you only stick with it."
To thank her for her years of service and scholarship, Montclair awarded Leef an honorary doctorate in 2009.
Complementing math with theology
Later, Leef took up divinity studies at Drew University, something she had long been interested in pursuing.
"I've been teaching Sunday school since I was 14," she points out. "I started seminary studies — the first time — right after Bob and I married. Drew was handy to Millburn."
Raising four children and balancing her career as a professor at Montclair State with further graduate studies and professional growth — she received a doctorate in mathematics education from Rutgers in 1975 — Leef put the seminary aside for a time.
But in 1980, with her children grown and her mother having recently passed away, she made a decision to renew her studies with fresh energy.
"I said to myself, if you're ever going to do it, you had better do it now," she says.
From 1980 to 1985 she studied for and obtained a master's in divinity (magna cum laude) at Drew while continuing to teach full-time at Montclair. After being ordained as a minister, she traveled to Irvington to join the First Congregational Christian Church of Irvington as its minister.
"I worked with the youth there for five years," she recalls.
Her next stop was the campus chaplain post at Montclair.
"I had a table in the student lounge where students walked back and forth. I called it the listening post," Leef says. "We had an empty chair there. Probably many students that sat in that chair had no discussion of religion and were just there to get some help in calculus!"
Either way, however, she was happy to listen without judgment, giving counsel wherever she could.
"There were kids there who had never been away from home, and had always gone to Sunday school back home," she points out. "Finally I was able to get a facility on campus for them. It took work, because this was a state school, but it eventually happened."
After turning over the chaplainship, she later also served as pastor, and remains pastor emerita, at The Community Church of Mountain Lakes.
"I'm emerita everywhere, by now," she laughs. "It's called 'longevity.'"
Giving back, looking forward
Now 'semi-retired,' Leef has continued to give back to Stevens — the university that not only educated her and her brother, but also her nephew, Chester Vincentz Jr. ’59 and even great uncle, Leon Guilloud, class of 1887.
Together with her husband, she created the Audrey J. and George R. Leef Scholarship, an annual award given to help accepted Stevens undergraduates meet tuition costs.
"I always wanted to give back, and with Bob having been an engineer, it seemed like the thing to do," she explains, adding that she hopes fellow Stevens alumni will also feel a call to contribute.
"Many times alums don't think at first about giving back," she finishes, "but all it takes is a little reminder. After all, there will always be another youngster who deserves to be helped and needs to be helped. Every year.
"And I am very happy that Bob and I have been fortunate enough to do so."