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A Queen by Nature

After learning the news, by telephone, that Sharon had died, I searched for her obituary.  I needed the written words to underscore the veracity of the sad and startling announcement. 

After a day or two, I found a lengthy tribute on the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Journalism and Mass Communication website. “Sharon Dunwoody (1947-2022), Evjue-Bascom Professor Emerita … a leader in science communication research, died February 4, 2022, after undergoing treatment for cancer in recent months”.  Seventeen paragraphs told her story. Scores of comments followed from colleagues, students, mentees and friends.  All extolled her virtues.  

The words were convincing. It was all too true.  She had been a courageous, trailblazing scholar: The first woman Director of the School of Journalism, Associate Dean for Graduate Education and renowned researcher, nationally and internationally.  And so much more. This brilliant, highly influential and notably kind woman had passed on. I lost a colleague and friend, and nature had lost a champion.  

There is no doubt that Sharon was a giant in her profession and leaves an immense contribution to the field of scientific journalism. Of the many accolades expressed by her former colleagues, one was particularly striking. “We would not even have a field known as science communication without the groundbreaking work of Sharon Dunwoody.” Let the significance of that statement sink in.

Consider where we would be without her and this field, especially now when clear scientific reporting and communication is critically important to our sheer existence, whether we are considering climate change, the pandemic, or a range of other complex challenges.

While retired for nearly ten years, Sharon fortunately remained in the mix.  She belied her age; always seeming so aware, active and contemporary.  I understand just weeks ago she was working on a messaging project related to climate change.

Sharon at center, to the viewer’s right of Estella Leopold, Jr.


I’m sure, in Sharon’s quiet way, she would calm us down if we lament her absence too long.  She would kindly acknowledge the compliment, smile and then express confidence that others will use their good judgment and work hard to advance in the right fashion.  She always seemed to bend those around her in a positive way, towards her high but achievable expectations. Her many years of teaching, mentoring and leading the next generation mean her influence will surely live on and flow through the new work and scholarship. 

Sharon’s important legacy was not limited to science and journalism. Sharon, an avid birder and gardener,  was also deeply involved in her Wisconsin landscape and important environmental work. She had a great love of nature and traveled the world to be close to it. It was in connection with these life passions that we worked together and became friends. 

Sharon and I served together on the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s Board of Directors. As Vice Chair and Chair of the Governance Committee, I worked closely with Sharon for six years. During that time, Sharon became Board Chair, the third woman to take the helm of the organization in its 40 year history. I was pleased when she was chosen for the Chair position in part because it was a demonstration of the foundation’s efforts to diversify leadership. Sharon herself was a stalwart and vigorous proponent of diversity and inclusion as a Leopold board member and believed integrating new audiences and leaders in the organization was a critical component for its long-term relevance and impact.  

I also felt the organization would be in good hands with her mature, serious leadership style and stellar skillset. Sharon did not disappoint. Her leadership was exemplary; careful, fair and ethical. She demonstrated clear vision and strategic expertise and did much to put the foundation on track for future success. She set a commendable tone; always respectful, patient, and careful in discourse. She was firm in her opinions, yet considerate of all other views. Our work was highly productive and enjoyable and it was an honor to serve under her leadership. Beyond setting a solid course for the future, Sharon leaves a durable legacy at the foundation including most notably the successful culmination of the $5 Million Future Leaders Campaign. This effort resulted in the construction of the Future Leaders Center, an improved curriculum, and an endowment to ensure greater stability of the program. 

When the time came for Sharon to step down as Board Chair, she encouraged me to succeed her. I was somewhat reluctant and maybe wouldn’t have accepted had she not convinced me that I was, in her words, “eminently qualified”. That lovely show of support made all the difference to me. I realize now that her gesture was perhaps representative of her modus operandi as a teacher. To mentor others to lead. How fortunate was I to have learned at her side.  

And now, as subject, I find myself writing about a special type of queen. And I use her prized currency: words.  I am humbled to offer this reflection in her honor and memory.   

Jeanette Leehr
Board Chair
Aldo Leopold Foundation