Erica B. Leisenring, a lawyer, civic leader, and hands-on advocate for poor and disadvantaged children died April 7, 2020, after a tenacious 18-month struggle with cancer.
Erica arrived in St. Louis unceremoniously in a car without a working starter on a snowy New Year’s Day in 1978. She and her boyfriend drove non-stop from her home on the Philadelphia Main Line, in order to keep the automobile running, and once in St. Louis she settled into a modest apartment on Laclede Avenue in the Central West End.
From that chilly but memorable beginning, Ms. Leisenring took on prosecutors and judges in her commitment to the poor and underrepresented and would eventually involve herself quietly in supporting good causes, families and poor children for the rest of her life.
Her family was with her when she died at home in Clayton. She was 68 years old. Erica Bissell Leisenring came from a family with a strong sense of civic responsibility. Her father, the late Edward Barnes Leisenring, was descended from a respected Pennsylvania coal mining family, and served on numerous business and civic boards in Philadelphia.
Ms. Leisenring’s father was working underground in a coal mine in Big Stone Gap, West Virginia, when Erica was born in 1951, in Kingsport, Tennessee, the nearest town with a hospital and maternity ward. Erica attended The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and Miss Porter’s School, in Farmington, Connecticut, graduating in 1969. She went from there to Boston University. While in Boston, she taught in the Head Start program in Roxbury, Massachusetts, an early example of her commitment to children and to public service. She transferred to the University of Pennsylvania and received her B.A. degree cum laude in 1974.
After graduation from the Antioch College School of Law in Washington, D.C. in 1977, she went to work as an Assistant Public Defender in the City of St. Louis. During her ten-year tenure she tried capital murder and death penalty cases, and became a supervising attorney and member of the training and hiring committees. Among those she hired was a young lawyer named Ronnie L. White who later became a Judge of the Missouri Supreme Court and is now a U.S. District Court Judge in St. Louis. She also trained her student intern Dee Joyce Hayes who later became St. Louis Circuit Attorney. When she and a colleague had children, the respect in which both were held persuaded her boss and the presiding judge to modify the criminal trial assignment calendar to accommodate their parenting duties — a historic first.
In 1983, Ms. Leisenring married Bob Sears, a lawyer who was the passenger on the non-stop snowy ride to St. Louis. Their son Edward, called Ned, was born in 1984, and Henry followed in 1986. Henry’s arrival signaled the end of her availability for major felony trials, so Ms. Leisenring retired — temporarily.
Her commitment to civic affairs grew during motherhood, and at first the focus was on her sons’ schools and education. She joined the board of Community School, recruited artists for the Children’s Art Fair, and organized fundraisers at John Burroughs School. Soon friends asked her to help other institutions, such as the St. Louis Public Library. Dr. Peter Raven recruited her to serve on the board of the Center for Plant Conservation, which was then housed at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and her experience with the law and with non-profits was of genuine consequence to that organization.
The late Katherine Wells Hoblitzelle, her father’s stepsister, involved Erica in the Garden Club of Saint Louis, for which she served as an officer and board member. She took an active, hands-on role with other organizations that she supported. As a volunteer judge in the nationally recognized St. Louis County Truancy Court program from 2002 to 2006, she worked with the Family Court, administrators, staff, and students at Bishop Middle School in the Wellston School District. She was a regular volunteer at the Trinity Episcopal Church Food Pantry in the Central West End.
In recent years she worked with the Cooking Matters project of Operation Food Search, an organization that teaches families how to cook and eat healthy on a budget. She also tutored and mentored students in grades K-3 at Hamilton School in the city’s Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. Starting in the 1980s she was a member of the board of the Friends of the St. Louis Public Library and when the organization disbanded, she continued to raise money for the library. She was deeply involved as a board member in the creation of the St. Louis Public Library Foundation, an organization that provided fund-raising heft and helped to pay for the renovation of the Central Library downtown.
Her friend and colleague Sally Nikolajevich recalls Ms. Leisenring’s role in building up the Foundation and fundraising for its functioning. ‘Erica loved the Central Library and everything it stands for — the opportunity to learn, open and free for all citizens, an important community connector and a City architectural landmark. ‘She did not have a problem rolling up her sleeves to do whatever it takes to make an event successful or to raise necessary funds. She served on the board, and chaired several important fundraising events. ‘She truly cared about all the citizens of our community and was willing to help them, whether it was a client in her family law practice, the homeless young woman on the street corner, or the myriad users of the Library. ‘Erica was also a good friend to many as well.
She had a large and varied group around her, maintaining contact with schoolmates from her early years as well as adding many new friends along the way, through her civic involvements, her quiet charm and her social grace. Underneath the polished exterior there was toughness paired with a heart of gold and a very fun-loving spirit. Erica maintained her poise even in awkward situations and treated everyone with kindness and respect. She had a wonderful laugh and appreciated the ironies and humor of life. Her thoughtful and intelligent point of view always grounded a discussion.’ Thus she was able to meld her role as mother and wife, as a champion of the underprivileged children in the community, and a supporter of vital institutions. And she didn’t retire from the law.
Even after her children were on their own, she worked for the Clayton firm of Stewart, Mittleman, Heggie & Henry, where she specialized in family law and childrens’ issues. Her husband, Robert M. Sears, survives her, as do her sons Edward and Henry, both of San Francisco; her mother, Julia Bissell Leisenring of Philadelphia; and her brothers: Ted, of Philadelphia, and John, of Arlington, Virginia. A memorial service will be announced later. Contributions in Erica’s memory may be made to the St. Louis Public Library Foundation, 1415 Olive St., St. Louis, MO 63103 or https://www.slpl.org/slpl-