Elaine Otter Leventhal MLA ’89, philanthropist, volunteer and namesake of the USC Elaine and Kenneth Leventhal School of Accounting, died on Aug. 15 following a stroke. She was 97.
A lifelong learner who enjoyed studying languages and history, Leventhal devoted herself to her family and several philanthropic causes, including USC. She and her husband, Kenneth, bequeathed $15 million to the USC School of Accounting in 1995 — at the time, the largest gift ever made to a university accounting program. The school was renamed in their honor the following year. The couple augmented that original gift with an additional $10 million pledge in 2002.
Elaine was a tremendous friend to the university, and was deeply loved by so many in the Trojan Family.
USC President C. L. Max Nikias
“Elaine was a tremendous friend to the university and was deeply loved by so many in the Trojan Family,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “She touched everyone she met with her extraordinary warmth, kindness and gracious hospitality. She and her late husband, Kenneth Leventhal, have a permanent place in the history of USC, and we are so pleased that our accounting school will forever bear their names.”
The Leventhals were entrepreneurs who built their business, Kenneth Leventhal & Co., from scratch, launching it out of a spare bedroom in their rented Los Angeles apartment just days after their wedding. Elaine Leventhal helped build the business during its first 10 years, working in the office and doing tax returns, until the couple’s two sons were born. The venture grew from a home-based start-up into a major firm specializing in real estate and complex reorganizations. When it merged with Ernst & Young in 1995, Kenneth Leventhal & Co. was the ninth largest CPA firm in the United States and had 13 offices nationwide.
“As a pioneer in the profession, Elaine Leventhal never lost sight of the value of accounting to our society, and the role of accounting education in that quest,” said William W. Holder, dean of the USC Leventhal School of Accounting. “The firm she founded with her husband, Kenneth, grew to become one of the most successful and respected in the world.
“She was keenly interested in all aspects of our school, particularly the success of our students, faculty and staff, and was a beloved presence at virtually every event over the years. We will all miss her wise counsel and warm friendship.”
Born in Chicago and raised by her mother and great aunt, Elaine Leventhal — then Elaine Otter — had an unconventional upbringing. Until seventh grade, she attended school only five months of the year. July through January, she traveled around the U.S. and Canada with her mother, visiting historical sites and museums while her mother tutored her.
“History became a living thing for me,” she said in an interview in 2000. “In February, I’d return and take the exams with the rest of the children. I always passed with high marks. Mother taught me well.”
A dedicated Girl Scout and an excellent student, she moved to Los Angeles in 1929 at age 11. She went on to win a Los Angeles County speaking competition and was the graduation speaker at Beverly Hills High School. She worked her way through UCLA to earn a bachelor’s degree in history in 1940. Jobs were scarce, so she enrolled in secretarial training at the Wright MacMahon Secretarial School in Beverly Hills.
To prepare to teach a bookkeeping class at the secretarial school, she enrolled in an advanced accounting course at UCLA. That is where she met her future husband, who was attending UCLA on the G.I. Bill. They married in 1949.
When their youngest son enrolled at USC and joined freshman crew in the 1970s, the Leventhals became proud USC supporters. Over the years, the Leventhals came to donate their time, enthusiasm and resources to schools and departments across the university. After their children were grown, Elaine Leventhal enrolled in the USC Graduate School, earning a master’s degree in liberal arts in 1989. Her husband later became a USC trustee and chaired the university’s 1993–2002 Building on Excellence fundraising campaign.
In a 2014 interview in the USC Leventhal News, Leventhal talked about her pride in USC’s accounting program. “I go to a lot of events at the school, and you get to meet the students and you realize how hard they’re all working and what a good job they’re doing. That makes you very proud of them and the school,” she said.
In addition to their namesake school, the Leventhals extended their support to the John R. Hubbard Chair in History at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as well as USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, the USC Davis School of Gerontology, USC Athletics and what is now known as the USC Eye Institute.
In recognition of her many contributions to the university, Elaine Leventhal was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from USC in 2000. She also received the Grace Award from the Girl Scout Council of Los Angeles that year.
A generous volunteer, she served as president of the Friends of the USC Libraries and as a board member of the USC Medical Faculty Women’s Association Research Fund, Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins and USC Eye Institute. She also was a trustee of the International Students Center at UCLA and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Preceded in death by her husband, Elaine Leventhal is survived by her son Ross ’76, daughter-in-law, Mary Jo, and granddaughter, Emma; and her son Robert.