Mike Van Leesten: always a team player

RIC Hall of Famer plans to open a community jobs center in Providence.

Mike Van Leesten
It’s been 45 years since Mike Van Leesten ’65 was a basketball star for the Anchormen, but the RIC Athletic Hall of Famer still has an incredibly competitive spirit, especially when it comes to helping those who are less fortunate.

Van Leesten had a stellar basketball career at RIC scoring 1,901 points and grabbing 1,494 rebounds. What makes his point total so impressive was that it was done before the advent of the three-point shot. Van Leesten is one of only three former Anchormen who accumulated both 1,000 or more points and rebounds. He was a member of the inaugural class to RIC’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1989 and is one of just four male basketball players to ever have his number retired and raised to the rafters of The Murray Center.

In 1967, following his graduation from RIC, he and a handful of civil rights workers launched the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) in South Providence. During its 24-year run, 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 OIC provided education, youth development and even built houses. It totaled $20 million in assets before it went broke. The building the OIC constructed to house its organization still stands today and serves as the Providence campus of the Community College of Rhode Island.

Four decades later, Van Leesten says the stress and despair is even greater than it was in the 1960’s, with the rise in unemployment. It is that stress and despair that has caused Van Leesten, after working in private industry for over 20 years, to come back full circle to his roots.

He is currently trying to find funds and supporters to open a center, just like the old OIC, in a vacant theatre on Broad Street in Providence. “We’re mobilizing a lot of people who have a serious passion for helping people in need,” Van Leesten said in a Providence Journal article. “Our families will be fine. But we won’t feel righteous until other folks are fine, too,” he added.

In April, Van Leesten and his group signed incorporation papers to get the project going. “People kept telling me I should bring back the OIC,” he said in the article. “They kept talking about foreclosures, job losses and people going to the ACI.”

“It doesn't surprise me that Mike is trying to revive the OIC,” said RIC Athletic Hall of Famer and former teammate Charlie Wilkes ’64. “He is always trying to help people.”

“Knowing Mike and his drive to help others, this project could directly benefit the people of Providence and we wish him the best of luck in this endeavor,” said RIC athletic director Don Tencher.