Made in Cola Town: Leeza Gibbons

Leeza Gibbons nurtures a sense of community in Irmo

Leeza Gibbons perches on a stool in the kitchen of Leeza’s Care Connection on St. Andrews Road in Irmo; her father, Carlos Gibbons, is never far from sight as she explains what led her to establish a foundation that supports hundreds of caregivers each month. Her portrait hangs on the wall, depicting Leeza in a hammock with her arms wrapped around her mother, Jean, who passed away in 2008. Shortly after her mother’s initial diagnosis in 1999, a reporter from People magazine called Leeza to ask for a comment on her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. Leeza was initially taken aback, but her mother encouraged her to tell the story, and the magazine’s photographer gave her the rights to the photograph that served as the basis for the treasured portrait.

“Life has a way of putting us exactly where we belong, always with perfect timing, whether we can see it or not,” Leeza says. “My experiences as a reporter, anchor, and TV host gave me an inside track on human resilience. It helped me grow my empathy and believe that we are stronger because of our vulnerabilities. As my mom always said, because I have always been a storyteller professionally, I was uniquely prepared to tell the story of our family’s journey with Alzheimer’s disease and caregiving.”

As Leeza talks about her foundation, Mary O’Donnell, whose husband suffered a stroke this past year, approaches her politely to thank her for sharing her resources with the community. As Mary sits across from her to share her experience with caregiving, Leeza leans across the kitchen counter and listens actively with the same skills that have set her apart in her impressive broadcasting career. Since graduating summa cum laude from the University of South Carolina (and receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award in 1996), Leeza’s accolades include hosting her own talk show for seven years, winning a Daytime Emmy award for Outstanding Talk Show Host in 2013 for the PBS show “My Generation,” and, in 2015, being named the winner of the NBC competition, “Celebrity Apprentice,” which raised more than $700,000 for her foundation.

“Our job is to help people find support within the community, to find medical support, psychological support, psycho-social support, to find a sense of community, to find structure for their journey, so they can be successful and realize that you can hang onto yourself even while you’re having to let go of someone whom you love,” says Leeza. “And that’s a crushing dichotomy sometimes.”

When Leeza’s mother was first diagnosed, the Gibbons family did what most people do. “We fumbled around in our grief and in our pain with a real sense of isolation. It’s hard to figure out how to access resources,” she shares.

Leeza’s foundation recently expanded its mission. “Our portal of life was through my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. We started out as Leeza’s Place, which was for those newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and a few years ago, I changed it to Leeza’s Care Connection when I recognized that the journey is very much the same, whether you’re dealing with Parkinson’s or stroke or cancer or some other chronic illness or disease.”

Leeza lives with Steven Fenton, her husband, in Los Angeles, California, where her foundation maintains another center for Leeza’s Care Connection, but she returns to her “heart-based home” several times a year. Her younger sister, Cammy, and older brother, Carl, and his wife, Anne Marie, still live in the Midlands, and her father lives on Lake Murray. “We are very close,” Leeza says. “They are my best friends. I’m the luckiest girl on earth to have a family like mine with huge hearts and enough love to lighten even the darkest days. I see them every time I’m in town, of course, but we also love to take trips together. Each of them is very supportive and involved with Leeza’s Care Connection.”

Growing up in the Whitehall subdivision of Irmo, not far from the landmark home of Michael J. Mungo that now houses Leeza’s Care Connection, Leeza remembers a strong sense of community with neighbors looking out for one another. “After school, I rode my bike to my best friend’s house and came home when the sun set. I remember building secret clubhouses in the woods behind my house. My brother drove the school bus, and it was parked in front of our house during the school year. Whether it was being in the school play, cheering at the games, or flashing peace signs and wearing bell bottoms while protesting the Vietnam War, my memories of Irmo are flashes of my own American dream, growing up with lots of people to support and encourage my path.”

Leeza remains close to two friends she made at Irmo Middle School: Zaidee Plein and Terri Holder. Leeza dubbed Zaidee, whose given name is Claudia, with her nickname in sixth grade, and it stuck. “They know me completely, and wherever they are feels like a safe place,” Leeza says.

Leeza is devoted to her adult children, Leksy, Troy, and Nate. They are wildly different but close to each other. Leeza says that they are one another’s biggest fans. Nate is a college sophomore. “A serial entrepreneur in the making, I love it when he calls for business advice,” Leeza says. Troy works as an editor in the television business, and his life revolves around his two dogs, Leeza’s “grand-puppies.” Leeza also treasures her own dog, “Biggie,” a shelter rescue that she thinks is a cross between a Maltese and a poodle.

Daughter Leksy is a dance therapist in Colorado. “She is my gypsy alter-ego,” Leeza says. Leksy recently visited South Carolina to take a family heritage tour with her grandfather and mother. “That trip was magic,” Leeza recalls. “We all want to know where we came from, but to get a guided tour from your grandfather is special. Leksy adores Pops, and he loved sharing stories from ‘back in the day.’ Being an L.A. girl, she enjoys the traditions of the South. We ate at the Summerton Diner and got greens from the Chat-n-Chew in Turbeville, my father’s birthplace. All the hot spots from my youth!”

Leeza shares that her parents both dreamed bigger than the small towns from which they came. Though Leeza was born in Hartsville, the family moved to the Midlands when she was a baby. Carlos was the executive director of the S.C. Education Association. Jean Gibbons was born in Summerton, and 10 years after her passing, her voice is still in her 61-year-old daughter’s head, saying things like, “Stay in your own lane,” or, “Don’t get too big for your britches.”

“Mom is my Jiminy Cricket,” Leeza says. “My kids laugh at me when I wind up to dispense some of her kitchen-table wisdom. They tell me to let go of the ‘bumper-sticker quick fixes.’” She has been able to honor her mother’s memory a little more each day by sharing her aphorisms and by helping others through the foundation.

Leeza’s 88-year-old father frequently shares his caregiving expertise with clients at Leeza’s Care Connection. Carlos also regularly sends Leeza handwritten poems, and she has published six volumes of her favorites.

The author of several bestselling books herself — Fierce Optimism: Seven Secrets for Playing Nice and Winning Big, Take 2: Your Guide to Creating Happy Endings, and Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health and Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss —  Leeza still appears frequently on television. For the past two years, she has co-hosted the Rose Parade, and she appears on QVC to promote the program “Three-Week Yoga,” which she says has helped her manage stress while getting fit.

Leeza’s long-time success with direct response marketing, starting with her cosmetic line, Sheer Cover, earned her the 2015 Direct Response Icon Award from the Electronic Retailing Association. Ironically, the secret to Leeza’s entrepreneurial success might be the fact that she does not consider herself to be an icon. Is she able to go to the grocery store in Irmo like a regular person?

“Oh, goodness,” says Leeza. “I hope I am a regular person everywhere I go. Seriously, I love being a part of a community where we feel connected. I get a lot of encouragement about the work that we do as I make my way around town. It’s one of the things I love about the South — people are not shy.”

Leeza at Day2Care Fundraiser with Pat Watts, caregiver for her mother, Jean Gibbons, who died from Alzheimer’s disease. Following her mother’s death in 2008, Leeza started the Foundation for Leeza’s Care Connection, which helps families find support in the community.


Sitting down with Leeza

Q: What is your favorite dish at Zorba’s?

A: Greek salad with blackened chicken and extra feta.

Q: How about Lizard’s Thicket?

A: At Lizard’s, I love the collard greens.

Q: What was your first job?

A: My first job was scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins for $1.10 an hour at the Dutch Square location. I was so good at it that my scooping arm muscle grew much bigger than the other. Then, I worked at Tapp’s in Women’s Ready-to-Wear and Cosmetics. I had some lovely ladies who mentored me. It’s one of the reasons why I try to always encourage and mentor others. It made such a difference in my life and helped me to develop faith in myself. Memories of being at the lunch counter at Tapp’s eating vegetable soup and cornbread with my mom are some of the sweetest ones I can recall.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: Open my eyes each morning. It’s all fun!

Q: Do you enjoy cooking?

A: Infrequently! But my husband is easy to feed, so I don’t mind much.

Q: Is your bathroom counter messy or neat?

A: What? A neat bathroom counter? Didn’t know that was possible.

Q: What books are on your bedside table?

A: Hitmakers by Derek Thompson, I’ve Been Thinking by Maria Shriver, and The Alzheimer’s Solution by Dean Sherzai.

Q: What was your favorite cheer on the Irmo sidelines?

A: We used to sing this cheer to the jingle for “We Are the Pepsi Generation,” and we turned it into, “We are the Jackets generation. We are the cause of a great sensation!” Pretty sassy, right?

Q: What barbecue sauce do you prefer: Pee Dee vinegar or Midlands mustard?

A: Midlands mustard, although I’ve never tasted barbecue I didn’t like.

Q: What is the scariest thing you’ve ever done?

A: Stand-up comedy at the Improv or hang gliding off the cliffs in Rio.

Q: What were your favorite classes at Irmo?

A: English.

Q: What do your children call you?

A: My daughter calls me Mama, and the boys call me Mom.

Q: How did you get the name Leeza?

A: It was my mom’s original take on Lisa.

Q: Are you an introvert or an extravert?

A: I’m both. I think many of us are contradictions. I love engaging with people, and I’m generally comfortable being out front, but there are times when I’m perfectly happy and sometimes prefer to be a follower, an unnoticed part of the crowd. Both roles are needed to make change happen. The thing I cannot tolerate in myself and others is apathy.