Michael Dennis Saleebey, AKA Beez, Beezy, Uncle Denny, D, Mickey, Mitch and Big D to his family and friends, arrived in this world on August 29, 1936. Born in San Diego to June Celeste Carlson and John Randolph McCullough, Dennis, measuring 22 inches, grew to a towering 6’4” which, coupled with an innate athletic ability, made him a formidable competitor on any basketball court. Although he loved hoops – playing basketball with his sons David and John and following his beloved University of Kansas (KU) Jayhawks – his true love was baseball. As a child, he took his younger sister Joan to numerous minor league and pick up baseball games and, as an adult, he was an annual visitor to Spring Training. Undeterred by the dust, the heat and the hard metal bleachers, Dennis reveled in the possibilities of the baseball pre-season – watching the undiscovered rookies blossom, the veterans reconnect with the joy of the game and the true fans bask in the glow of stadium lights at dusk.
A true talent, Dennis had the opportunity to try out for the San Diego Padres, a team his father Ted Saleebey would follow his entire life. However, Dennis’ mother June intervened. Seeing the smarts that coexisted with Dennis’ love of all things sports, she demanded that he forego his field of dreams and attend college – a no-so-gentle prodding for which Dennis, and later the academic community, was grateful.
A California boy from Ocean Beach (OB) with an enduring connection to the ocean until his death, Dennis received his B.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara (1958), his Master’s in Social Work from the University of California at Los Angeles (1960) and his Doctor of Social Work from the University of California at Berkley (1972). Never one to turn down a challenge, Dennis began his career at the University of Maine in Orono, becoming the Chair of the Undergraduate Social Welfare Program. Next Dennis moved his family – wife Bette, whom he met at Lackland AFB in San Antonio Texas while acting, in part, as the Chief Social Worker in the Child Diagnostic Clinic at Wilford Hospital, and their children Jennifer, David, John and Meghan – to Arlington, Texas. During his tenure at the University of Texas at Arlington (1970-1987), Dennis acted as a professor and, on several occasions, the Chair of the Human Behavior Sequence.
Tragically, Bette died in 1986 after a courageous battle with leukemia. In 1987, Dennis had the opportunity to take a position as professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Dennis remained at KU from 1987 until his retirement in 2006. During his tenure, he acted as the Chair of the Doctoral Program (until 1997) and from his retirement to his death held the position of Professor Emeritus. It was at KU that the seeds of his lifelong commitment to community organizing and his belief in the inherent resilience and capacity of individuals took root. His early works addressing such topics as oppression in female populations, the ability of adolescents to engineer and initiate change, empowerment for clients and the construction of meaning and knowledge coalesced and fed his work as one of the creators of the Strengths Perspective.
The Strengths Perspective, which upends traditional medical models of intervention and focuses instead on strengths and capacities and their ability to leverage change, transformed the practice of social work both at KU and across the national, and international, landscape. While on this academic journey, Dennis met and married Ann Weick, former Dean of the KU School of Social Welfare, who became his partner in academia, life and a mother to his adult children. Although he lost both Ann and Bette, Dennis remarked that he was an undeniably lucky man – to have had two great, enduring loves. But, that was Dennis. Ever grateful, ever hopeful. Ever searching for possibilities.
Such a search, personally and professionally, brought Dennis multiple accolades. Though he never touted his successes, they were varied and many. Both he and Ann received the Lydia Rapoport Distinguished Professors Award from Smith College (1994) as well as the highly prestigious Richard Lodge Award for contributions to social work theory, from the Adelphi School of Social Work (1995). In 2002-2003, Dennis was the Moses Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York. His publications, too numerous to count, include acting as the editor and an author of 6 editions of the Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice (Pearson) as well asauthoring Human Behavior and Social Environments: A Biopsychosocial Approach (Columbia University, 2001). Dennis, along with Ann and other colleagues, worked tirelessly to improve the practice of social work; however, he also possessed a strong commitment to the community. Dennis served on several boards and supported numerous non-profits and community organizations, including Van Go!, Inc., Catholic Community Services, the Community Outreach Program at Rosedale Development Center, the Saturday Academy in Kansas City, the Douglas County AIDS Project, and the Lawrence Alliance.
Dennis led a distinguished life full of accomplishments, but perhaps his greatest accomplishments were those as father, husband, son, friend and mentor. Whether capturing the heart of his father Ted by riding his tricycle to meet him at the street corner after work each day or acting as the emcee and erstwhile patriarch of the Saleebey family reunions, Dennis was a loving son, a beloved cousin and a cherished brother to his sisters Joan and Janet. Able to make his wife Bette laugh in the midst of the ravages of her cancer and making all of us laugh in the midst of his own, Dennis passed on his love for humor and his zest for life to his four children. A renaissance man known to tickle an ivory or two, Dennis passed his love of classical music to his daughter Jennifer, who for much of her life was a professional violinist. Most importantly, he taught his children about kindness, compassion and justice – passions he shared with Ann, whose grace and beauty inspired him. For his friends and colleagues, he was ever the mentor, humble and gracious – eager to share his knowledge but also a practiced listener and awise guide.
We are broken hearted to have lost a great man – who, for so many, was larger than life. But his ability to identify the strengths in others – his enduring hope in the power of resilience and inherent capacity made us all better people. We are forever imprinted with his belief in our better selves.
Dennis is survived by his children Jennifer and her husband Ken, David, John and Meghan, his sisters Joan Lounsbery and Janet Sundstrom, his sister-in -law Jeanie Wilson and her husband Gary, his brother-in-law Jerry Weick, his wife Rita and their daughter Sarah and her family as well as numerous cousins and extended family members, including Bette’s family, and friends.
The service and celebration of life for Dennis will occur on Saturday, August 2, 2014. The service will start at 4:00 pm at Warren-McElwain, 120 West 13th Street, Lawrence, KS 66044. The celebration of life will begin at 5:30 at the Cider Gallery, 810 Pennsylvania Street, Lawrence, KS 66044.
Contributions in memory of Dennis may be made to Van Go!, Inc. at 715 New Jersey Street or PO Box 153, Lawrence, Kansas 66044 or www.van-go.org. Contributions may also be made to the Weick/Saleebey Fund for Social Work Innovation, c/o the KU Endowment, PO Box 928, Lawrence, KS 66044 and may be sent in care of Warren-McElwain Mortuary.
For condolences and further information, please visit www.warrenmcelwain.com