President Emeritus Thomas J. LeBlanc Portrait Shows ‘A Man of His Time’

LeBlanc returned to GW for the unveiling of this work by artist Peter Waddell, depicting the former president during the revitalization of Thurston Hall.

May 21, 2024

Portrait of Thomas J. LeBlanc by Peter Waddell.

Portrait of Thomas J. LeBlanc by Peter Waddell. (Photo: Bruce M. White)

George Washington University President Emeritus Thomas J. LeBlanc returned to GW last Wednesday for the unveiling of his official portrait by artist Peter Waddell. The unveiling also served as a celebration of LeBlanc’s achievements like the reimagination of Thurston Hall and steering the university through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Under his leadership, our university navigated one of the most trying times in the history of our nation and higher education,” GW President Ellen M. Granberg said at the unveiling.

Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights, J.D. ’82, also recalled LeBlanc’s leadership during the difficult pandemic period, his prioritization of the student experience and increased financial aid, and his stewardship of GW’s reorganized medical enterprise.

LeBlanc’s tenure at the helm “was truly impactful across all aspects of the university,” Speights said.

LeBlanc, whose wife and sons were in attendance, thanked his peers and colleagues for their support and reiterated his unwavering belief in the power of education to change lives for the better.

“I've seen that power at work in my own life and in the lives of my friends and my family,” he said. “Whatever the issues of the day may be, everyday lives are transformed by higher education.”

Over his decades spent in the field—first as a student, then as a professor and finally in a succession of academic leadership roles—LeBlanc said his faith in the transformative power of education "got me out of bed every day for 50 years.”

His wish for the audience: “May it do the same for you.”

LeBlanc said he felt drawn to the work of artist Peter Waddell from the first. “That’s the guy I want telling my story,” he remembered.

Waddell, a native of New Zealand, is known for his American architectural and historic work, executed to a high degree of detail and informed by meticulous research. He said he and LeBlanc worked together to create a portrait that communicated action, practicality and scope of vision.

“When I met with Dr. Tom LeBlanc to discuss the portrait, he was very clear that he did not want the traditional portrait seated at a desk,” Waddell remembered. “He wanted a portrait that showed his practical accomplishments, and one which would show him as a man of his time.”

The final piece shows LeBlanc visiting the construction site of the renewed Thurston Hall, standing on the windowed bridge that joins the east and west sides of the building and overlooks the nine-story central court. The composition is structured by the bridge’s window frames, which appear as eight vertical columns. “Each window represents a new space and the quality of the students’ lives changed by Dr. LeBlanc,” Waddell explained. “The scale of his vision is large, not small.”

Workers in bright vests are busy on the scaffolding below; sunlight falls across the building façade to LeBlanc’s left, creating a sense of both specificity and timelessness. The former president holds an architectural plan in one hand. Boxes and construction material around him communicate a moment in the midst of unfolding, steps toward an unrealized goal, challenges that resist easy resolution. Birds and airplanes are caught mid-flight. In the background, the Washington Monument rises, “itself a representation of a ray of light,” Waddell said. “This prospect and the new Thurston Hall are part of the unique experience that George Washington University offers students in the heart of the national capital.”

LeBlanc became GW president in 2017 and concluded his service on Dec. 31, 2021. During his tenure, he spearheaded other campus development initiatives, such as bringing residential dining to campus and stewarding the process to consider renaming campus spaces and facilities, including the University Student Center. LeBlanc also catalyzed improvements to the research enterprise infrastructure and expanded interdisciplinary initiatives. While navigating the university through the COVID-19 pandemic, LeBlanc helped GW play a key role in vaccine development and distribution. Prior to GW, LeBlanc was executive vice president and provost at the University of Miami. Before that, he served as dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Engineering at the University of Rochester.