Michael Dennis Saleebey

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.




11 Condolences

  1. John Esau on July 25, 2014 at 5:17 am

    It was a great pleasure to meet and help Dennis transition to a smaller home, and I enjoyed our encounters and his wry sense of humor. I regret that I cannot be at the service as I will be away at a family reunion (Dennis would understand, I think). My condolences to Dennis’s family, friends and colleagues. Clearly, he was a very special guy.

  2. Goody Garfield on July 26, 2014 at 8:26 am

    I think of Dennis as a great human being–caring, kind, generous, committed to justice and good acts, and a brilliant scholar, author and teacher whose words and deeds brought him national and international acclaim. His mix of seriousness and fun made being in his presence a joy and a privilege. How he was able to remain so humble and modest in the light of his major accomplishments is a mystery. Maybe the answer lies within this statement to a colleague by Golda Meier, an early Prime Minister of Israel:”Stop being so humble. You are not that great.” Dennis, contrarily, could be as humble as he was simply because he was THAT great.

  3. Sue OHara-Jones on July 27, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Dennis stands alone in my memory of graduate school at UTA. He was inspiring as a teacher, a great encourager of learning, and quietly funny. He will be missed by all of us who were lucky to have been exposed to this humble, lovely man.

  4. Candace S on July 28, 2014 at 4:23 am

    Jennifer & Family:
    Please accept my heart-felt condolences in this most difficult loss.
    May your many wonderful memories comfort you all in the days ahead.

    Prayers and kind thoughts sent your way.

    Candace S

  5. Ann Clendenin on July 28, 2014 at 10:30 am

    My condolences to Dennis’ family and colleagues. He was a gifted teacher, a wise and compassionate mentor, and a brilliant man. I feel so privileged to have been a student of his, and so grateful, as a social worker, for his legacy.

  6. Amber McLemore on July 29, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Although I did not know this man or any of his family members, I just wanted to take a moment and thank him for all that he did. I was reading the obituaries and was drawn into his after I noticed his beautiful smile. He sounds like he was an amazing human being. Always doing something to help those around him. I’m sure he will be missed a lot.

  7. William E. Harper on July 29, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Dennis-My favorite Instructor.

    Bill Harper

  8. Barbara Duehn on July 30, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Jennifer, John, David and Meghan. Wayne and I are so sorry about your dad’s death. I keep remembering all the great times our family had with yours. I still love the picture of our “Baby Jennifer” sitting in a chair with either David or John’s black cowboy hat on. That is to me the essence of the Saleebey family- loving caring and fun. We shared so much in all your lives in Arlington and will always remember your whole family.

  9. Roger Goldblatt on December 14, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    It was with shock and a great deal of sadness that I learned of Dennis’ passing, today Dec. 14. A friend and I were heading to Lawrence from KC to eat at India Palace, and I thought I’d invite my old and favorite prof to join us for dinner. I was looking up his phone number on line when I saw the sad news. I think Dennis arrived at KU (and possibly Ann) the year I began the MSW program -1987. Dennis taught me the most important role of the social worker was connecting. He taught me this by connecting. I received a Christmas card every year from Dennis. Last year he spoke of his faith in his oncologist and how he might be able to sell some of his pain killers on the street for fair market value. 🙂 At age 64 –and 27 years after earning my MSW– I passed the LCSW licensing exam yesterday, Dec. 13. It was a tough test. Looking back on that today, knowing what I now know, I’ve got to believe Dennis was up there somewhere, somehow, guiding my hand. Lawrence seemed a bit vacant tonight, Christmas lights sparkling in the rain on Massachusetts, without Dernnis and Ann in residence there. I’ll miss the Christmas card from Dennis this year. My condolences to his family.

  10. Bonnie Benard on March 8, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    I am late learning of Dennis’ passing. I cherish the emails, conversations, and one actual meeting in person I shared with Dennis. He was a humorous, courageous and resilient person as well as pioneer in the perspective that we all have inherent strengths and resilience. I am grateful to have known him as a person and colleague. All my best to his family–what a gift to have him as a father.

  11. Dion Wright on December 10, 2021 at 3:41 pm

    He was the funniest man in our WWII Marine barracks dormitory, UCSB, ca 1956,7. I haven’t seen him since, and only researched his name on a whim, 60+ years later. He’s traipsed through my brain many times, proving the impact of his personality. I just waited too long.

    Dion Wright

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