Providence, R.I.—Rhode Island College was saddened to learn of the passing of Athletic Hall of Famer and civil rights icon Michael Van Leesten ’65 on Friday. He was 80.
Mike Van Leesten was simply one of Rhode Island College’s brightest alumni. As a student-athlete, he was simply one of RIC’s greatest men’s basketball players. However, there was much more to Mike Van Leesten than just his athletic ability. His excellence transcended the athletic arena and he has carried that same passion into his professional life and throughout the Providence community.
As a student-athlete, even though it’s been over 50 years since he graced the hardcourts, many of his records still stand today. He is RIC’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,494 boards and is fourth in career scoring with 1,901 points. He is one of only three RIC players with over 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. An extremely durable player, he recorded 106 career games played.
He was inducted into RIC’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989, the college’s All-75th Anniversary Men’s Basketball Team in 2005 and his jersey number (34) is retired and hangs in the rafters of The Murray Center.
After his graduation in 1965, Van Leesten continued to distinguish himself, both professionally and in the Providence community. During the summer of 1965, he joined Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was part of a 350 student contingent that traveled to the South to promote the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He then taught for two years at Roger Williams Junior High School in Providence. Van Leesten then served as the Executive Director of the Opportunities Industrialization Center (O.I.C.) from 1968-1985. This organization worked with the community in Providence, helping disadvantaged students and providing job training for people who were denied opportunities in the past because of their race or background. In addition, the O.I.C. provided education, youth development and even built houses.
Van Leesten moved on from the O.I.C. to serve as the Chairman of the Rhode Island Mortgage Finance Corporation and a Director of Fleet Bank of Rhode Island. He then established his own consulting firm: Van Leesten Associates. He has also served on the Rhode Island State Board of Regents, which oversees all of the public education institutions in the state.
He was an Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Mashantucket Peqot Tribal Nation and helped with the development of Foxwoods Resort Casino. He was also the Chairman of the Providence Black Repertory Company.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in education from Rhode Island College in 1965. Van Leesten hold three honorary doctoral degrees from Rhode Island College, the University of Rhode Island and Roger Williams University.