Joyce Lebra, first female University of Colorado Boulder history professor, dies at 95 – The Denver Post

Joyce Lebra, feminist trailblazer, renowned scholar and the University of Colorado Boulder’s first female history professor, died Oct. 10 in Boulder. She was 95.

Lebra’s closest friends and chosen family describe her as a formidable, wise and warm woman whose heart was split between her love of Asia and America, the ocean and Colorado’s mountains.

Born in Minnesota and raised in the territory of Hawaii, Lebra’s lifework was shaped by the injustices she saw as a child, said Andrew Violet, who leads the University of Colorado Libraries CU Legend Series.

Violet met and became close friends with Lebra when she was named a CU Legend, he said, and he now feels like her adopted nephew.

“I think she was filled with a sense of injustice from where she grew up in Hawaii that she wanted to address and even atone for,” Violet said.

Lebra’s father worked as an entomologist in Hawaii for the pineapple and sugar companies that were displacing indigenous people and exploiting migrant workers.

“I think that sense of injustice overwhelmed her, and it never left her,” Violet said. “I don’t know if it was a desire to tell the story as a scholar and academic or a personal sense of solidarity and atonement with people who had been oppressed. It was probably a combination of all those things.”

Lebra became the first woman in the United States to get a doctorate in Japanese history in 1958 when she graduated from Harvard/Radcliffe and was CU Boulder’s first — and for 15 years, only — female history professor. She taught at CU Boulder for 29 years.

She was a Fulbright scholar, studying in Japan from 1955-1957 and India from 1965-1966 and published research that other academics did not or would not focus on, such as the creation of the Indian National Army from the perspective of Japanese and Indian sources.

One of the greatest honors of her life came in her final weeks, when she was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Neck Ribbon, by the Consulate-General of Japan in Denver. It is the third-highest honor someone can receive for contributions to Japan, and she received it for “promoting academic exchange and mutual understanding between Japan and the United States,” the Denver Post reported.

She received the medal in August and wore it constantly, said close friend KJ McCorry.

“She did not take it off, ever. She slept with it on, and that Friday before she passed she wanted to give it to me because she wanted to make sure it got back to Andrew and the (CU) Library,” McCorry said. “It really was a symbol of her life’s work and her promotion of culture.”

David Wagner, a longtime friend who counts Lebra as an adopted mother, wrote a chapter honoring her in an upcoming book about his life in Japan, “Never Give a Young Person a Map if You Expect Him to Stay Home.”

“She always aimed high, broke the mold again and again, and never wavered in times of difficulty,” Wagner wrote. “She was a great practitioner of living life to the fullest each day. More than anything, she was a beacon for me, a guiding light from someone who was in Japan even before I was born.”

Lebra’s legacy lives on through the expansive community she created and maintained into her final days.

While Lebra became less mobile later in life, McCorry recalled Lebra gathering with friends for Japan nights, when they would make Japanese food and serve it on special Japanese dishes they had collected.

The final time McCorry visited her, the Friday before her death, Lebra told her she had had 13 visitors the day before.

And Lebra loved cats — specifically black cats, the latest of which was Piffi, adopted five years ago. Piffi was initially supposed to be adopted by McCorry after Lebra’s passing, but Lebra did not want Piffi to live with McCorry’s other cats.

“She was such a direct person — I came over, and she said, ‘You know, it’s just not going to work with you, KJ,’” McCorry said, laughing.

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