Generous, Down-to-Earth, Brilliant, Creative: The Mentorship and Legacy of Dr. Phoebe Liebig

Thirty-five year ASA member and University of Southern California (USC) Leonard Davis School of Gerontology Professor Emerita Phoebe Stone Liebig died in Los Angeles Feb. 24, 2021, at age 87.

Dr. Liebig was an expert in aging who helped build the entire field—in programming, research, policy and advocacy. Within ASA, she spoke at many annual conferences, was for five years a Public Policy Committee member, co-authored journal articles about Economic Security and Housing for Generations and was active in ASA’s Network on Environments, Services and Technology (NEST) Constituent Group. 

“Through her life and her work, Phoebe Liebig’s impact on the USC Leonard Davis School and the field of gerontology cannot be overstated,” said USC Leonard Davis School Dean Pinchas Cohen. “Her research and advocacy around age-friendly policies and the importance of creativity improved the lives of countless older adults, and the example she set as a lifelong learner who pursued her passions and interests leaves a legacy we all should emulate.”

Dr. Liebig was a high school teacher and then forged a career in aging at USC before earning her doctorate in Public Administration at age 50. Having worked as a grants specialist, raised her son and completed her doctorate as a middle-age woman, she was an inspiration to me and many others whose career paths unfolded in ways not recognized as orthodox. As a non-traditional-age doctoral student with two small children of my own, I first met Dr. Liebig in Social Policy and Aging class at USC. 

Hundreds of former students and staff would concur that Dr. Liebig was extremely generous—at first with her use of a red pen in correcting our syntax!  However, beyond the initial read, Dr. Liebig was especially munificent with career advice, intuitive lifestyle suggestions, remembering birthdays, collaborating with budding scholars on publications and setting up the USC Phoebe Liebig Endowed Scholarship Fund. 

Many people had the privilege of knowing Dr. Liebig for longer than I did, and she was a persistent advocate for all with whom she connected. Since the late February announcement of her death, dozens of gerontology alums have been sending me their remembrances of her influence.

“Receiving a merit-based scholarship under Dr. Phoebe Liebig’s name in 2018 was an honor. Although I did not have the opportunity to be directly mentored by her, through the brief chats on different occasions with her, she was a very approachable professor. I was impressed with the practical insights for interacting with the audience at a poster presentation. I was impressed by the stories of her active retirement life, and by her friendliness in saying, ‘You can just call me Phoebe,’ ” Mengzhao Yan, MASM, 2019.

‘She was a persistent advocate for all with whom she connected.’

“Dr. Phoebe was one of a kind, and I will miss her dearly,” said Shirley Kirksey, retired USC staff.

Anyone who worked alongside her quickly came to know her as Phoebe. With that familiarity, we learned about her active participation in her family life, especially how much she loved her son Steuart, daughter-in-law Leslie and grandchildren Anya and Aron.

Phoebe was an exemplar in exhibiting a healthy work-life balance and in pursuing everyday creative practices such as singing and gardening. Her decision to retire from USC but continue active involvement in the Retired Faculty Association, travels with family and friends, artistic aging research and consulting, is a model for all of us. 

Phoebe wasn’t overly impressed with fancy titles or intimidated by academic and political bureaucracy. Her life growing up on the East Coast afforded her an instinctive command of how the conventional Western world works, but the adult life she built in California, India and through her travels, offered her more innovative and creative approaches to understanding wellness, and a more diverse world view. While Phoebe had a huge impact on me personally and on my education and career, I am no exception. Phoebe mentored many students, staff and faculty, and her legacy will continue.

"Dr. Phoebe Liebig, [was] an amazing person, who has sponsored me by providing partial scholarship for my graduate studies at University of Southern California. She took her time in mentoring and coaching me in becoming a Gerontologist. I'm forever grateful to this loving person who played a pivotal role in my journey to the West,” said Sai Raj Kappari, PharmD and USC MSG, 2017. “Her book ‘Aging India’ signifies her dedication and compassion for our fellow beings. She will be missed. My gratitude to her and USC."

Phoebe treated us all, whether new acquaintances or long-time office mates, as humans, as colleagues, as workers who can and will be better. She knew the details of our personal lives and our intellectual faults and strengths. Phoebe encouraged us to “work smart” and find our focus, to take care of ourselves and our families, plan for our futures and remember our pasts. She balanced being a scholarly advisor, professional coach, cheerleader and discerning editor, with motherly and grandmotherly advice, smiles and hugs sprinkled in to keep us going. 

“It’s hard to say goodbye to someone who, like Phoebe, was so much more than an early leader in gerontology. She touched our lives personally and professionally. As a student, she held us to a high standard, just as she did herself. As her friend, I always knew that she was there for me. Her contributions have changed the lives of so many of us. Phoebe will be forever in our hearts.” Jolene Fassbinder, MSG, Program Officer, Archstone Foundation.

Caroline Cicero, PhD, is an instructional associate professor of Gerontology and director of the USC Age Friendly University Initiative at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Photo of Phoebe Liebig (top) courtesy of USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology.