Mitch Leigh visiting the School of Music in 2011

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Mitch Leigh, a Yale graduate and benefactor, died yesterday morning, March 16. He had a stroke a little over a week ago. Dean Blocker announced the news to the School’s community “with immense gratitude for his life and unspeakable sadness for our loss.”

Mitch Leigh was born in 1928 in Brooklyn. His parents, who had arrived in New York in 1921, made it a priority for him to study music. After attending the High School of Music and Art, he joined the army in 1946 in order to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. While recovering at Walter Reed Army Hospital from a baseball injury, he heard music by Paul Hindemith on the radio and wrote to him at Yale. The next fall he enrolled, earning his bachelor’s degree from Yale College in 1951 and his master’s from the Yale School of Music in 1952.

Dean Blocker noted, “Mitch Leigh continually maintained that his time at Yale was the turning point in his life. His love and admiration for Keith Wilson, his lifelong friendship with Willie Ruff, and his gratitude for having Paul Hindemith as his teacher were all dominant themes in his Yale experience.”

Leigh once said in an interview, “After working with [Hindemith], when I left Yale I could write anything.” Leigh is best known for the musical Man of La Mancha, with book by Dale Wasserman and lyrics by Joe Darion. Based on Cervantes’s The Adventures of Don Quixote, the musical opened on Broadway in 1965 and won two Tony Awards. Leigh was also a producer, director, and businessman.

One of the School’s most prominent alumni, Leigh was also one of its strongest supporters. In 2001, Yale’s then-president Richard Levin announced that the School’s building at 435 College Street would be named Abby and Mitch Leigh Hall. Levin said, “We are delighted to recognize Mitch and Abby Leigh, who have been such good friends and generous supporters of Yale and the School of Music. It is a special pleasure to honor one of the school’s most accomplished graduates.” The building, which reopened in the fall of 2006 after a yearlong renovation, contains faculty studios, administrative offices, and classrooms.

In 2006, it was announced that the Willie Ruff Chair in Jazz  at the School of Music had been created through Leigh’s generosity. Dean Blocker commented in the announcement that “the establishment of the Willie Ruff endowed chair is reflective of the ongoing commitment to the School of Music and the heartfelt affection the Leighs have for Willie Ruff.”

One of Leigh’s first gifts to the School of Music honored his teacher, Keith Wilson, with an endowed scholarship. Leigh further recognized Wilson by naming the band room in Hendrie Hall for him.

In his March 16 letter to the YSM community, Dean Blocker noted,” Most important to Mitch was his family. Abby, his beloved wife, and the children — David, Eve, and Andy — enlarged his life and in so doing enriched the School of Music as well. Today we remember the life of a remarkably talented man whose benevolence made and will make dreams possible for countless aspiring young artists.”

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