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Noted North County philanthropist enhanced lives of many

Andre “Toni” Leichtag, a quiet fount of generosity in the San Diego community for decades, died on Nov. 11, 2009.
A longtime resident of La Costa and Fairbanks Ranch, she returned to Carlsbad after the death of her husband, Max “Lee” Leichtag, in November 2007. Leichtag was also predeceased by her daughter, Joli Ann Leichtag, who died of cancer at age 60 in July 2007. She is survived by Joli Ann’s daughter, Heather Greene [husband Chris Greene] and their twin sons, Mason and Brody, of Ponder, Texas, and by her daughter, Leani Leichtag of Costa Mesa, Cal., and Leani Leichtag’s children, Milea Merritt, Michael Napolitano and Vincent Napolitano. Leichtag also is survived by four great-grandchildren.
Acting jointly with her husband and on her own, Leichtag compassionately donated money and her time to a broad array of organizations. To date, the Leichtag Family Foundation and Leichtag Family Trust have donated more than $40 million to alleviate human hardship, advance self-sufficiency and promote tolerance and understanding. Grants benefiting infants through elders span the spectrum of educational, medical, religious, cultural and quality-of-life causes throughout San Diego County and internationally.
A memorial for Leichtag was held Nov. 18, at the Walled Garden at San Diego Botanic Garden in Encinitas. In lieu of flowers, family members say that Toni Leichtag would have preferred a contribution of time or money to their charity of choice.
Leichtag was born on Sept. 1, 1913 in Victoria, British Columbia, to Freda and Hillis Houston. Her father deserted the family two months after her brother, Bill Houston, Sr., was born in 1916. Despite adversity, Freda Houston instilled a strong work ethic and a love of music in her two children while raising them as a single mother in Tacoma and Seattle.
Leichtag pursued a dual career as a blues singer and licensed manicurist. In the 1930s, she sang in many venues throughout Seattle and at San Francisco’s famed Pantages Theatre. She was the female vocalist in several well-known bands of the era, including Hoagy Carmichael’s orchestra.
Toni and Lee Leichtag met at a wedding. They were married Dec. 25, 1941 and were full partners in their life, business ventures and philanthropic endeavors. Toni Leichtag was a corporate officer in the Leichtags’ successive companies: American Vitamin Company, Inc., MD Pharmaceutical, Inc., and Divinity Religious Products, Inc. She served as chairwoman of the board of the Leichtag Family Foundation from its inception in 1991 until 2007, when she became Chairwoman Emeritus.
Heather Greene was very close to her grandmother. She recalls, “She was a very classy woman who carried herself magnificently all of the time. I have fond memories of my jazzy grandmother zipping around town in her Tic-Tac-sized white Mercedes. My grandmother and I spent a lot of one-on-one time when I was young. We were pals.”
“My grandmother and grandfather defined what a great partnership is all about. It gave them a lot of pride to see what their hard work and dollars contributed to society. My grandparents did many beautiful things. They changed lives,” Greene said.
Bill Houston of Danville, Cal., recalls his sister as a resilient and warm-hearted person: “Toni was always family-oriented. From her youth, she was a hard-working gal who was interested in music and in getting ahead in the world. The financial difficulties she had as a young girl were similar to the challenges Lee experienced.”
James S. Farley, the family’s longtime attorney and trusted advisor who took the helm as President and CEO of the Leichtag Family Foundation after Lee Leichtag’s death, confirms that the Leichtags were passionate about their philanthropy: “Lee and Toni would often joke that they worked as hard to give their money away as they did to make it.”
In addition to the Leichtag Family Foundation’s substantial financial donations, including grants of $12 million to the University of California San Diego Biomedical Research program, $6 million to San Marcos Unified School District and other significant contributions, Toni Leichtag served on the board of directors of Scripps Memorial Hospital, Encinitas (Scripps Encinitas); Hospice of the North Coast; Seacrest Village Retirement Communities; Voices for Children, Inc.; and Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego. She was a founder of the Circle of Life 100 at Scripps Encinitas. In 1993, Voices for Children established the “Toni Leichtag Award” in her honor. The award is given to those who contribute significantly to abused, neglected and abandoned children of San Diego County.
Despite the enormity of her contributions,. Leichtag remained unpretentious and committed to recipients of her philanthropy. Of the $12 million UCSD grant she said, “Finding cures for childhood diseases has always been of high importance to our family and of great value to the nation’s future.”
In 2008, she donated the Fairbanks Ranch property, valued at $3.8 million, to Scripps Encinitas. The donation marked the single largest philanthropic donation in the hospital’s history, capped 25 years of family support to the facility and garnered Leichtag recognition among The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s America’s Top 50 Donors of 2008. Her last public appearance was in October 2008, when she attended the opening of SMUSD’s Joli Ann Leichtag Elementary School, named after her daughter.
In 2008, the Leichtag Family Foundation gave a $500,000 grant to San Diego Botanic (formerly Quail) Garden in Encinitas, California. The grant funded an inviting, climbable 20-foot tree house, which has become emblematic of the one-acre Hamilton Children’s Garden where it reigns. The iconic structure, which opened to the public in June 2009 and artfully blends man-made materials with living plants, is named “Toni’s Tree House” in honor of its benefactor.
The tree house will stand as a testament to the Leichtag Family Foundation’s generosity of spirit, believes Farley. He said, “Toni and Lee Leichtag’s love for each other throughout more than 65 years grew outward into a love that embraced their fellow man. Their support has nurtured so many people. The Foundation they established leaves a legacy that is unparalleled for its vision in our community.”