James T. Leeson, 1930-2010

My friend Jim Leeson—to whom The Eyes of Willie McGee is dedicated—died earlier this week, in a manner that left hundreds of people who knew and loved him shocked and saddened but not completely surprised. Jim took his own life, and his body was found in the countryside close to where he lived, in a beautiful home he’d designed and built himself on a woodsy ridge south of Nashville, Tennessee. Part of Jim’s famously independent nature was a dread of becoming an invalid, of having to be taken care of and losing control of his own fate. He’d been suffering various health problems for a while, and he had a nagging sense that his memory was eroding, so he obviously decided the time was now. Many people who knew him assumed he might go out this way at some point. We just didn’t think it would be so heartbreakingly soon. You can read a lot more about him at this great page set up by E. Thomas Wood, a Nashville journalist and a former student of Jim’s.

As for my two cents . . . It’s hard to describe Leeson to anybody who didn’t already know him, but he was a man who influenced a huge number of lives through a unique combination of personality, humor, contrariness, talent, caring, and generosity. I met him in 1978 at Vanderbilt University, where he served throughout the seventies and into the eighties as the advisor for student publications. His role was pretty loosely defined: He came in twice a week in one of his wrinkled suits, smelling like hay or manure (back then, he lived on a bigger piece of property where he kept cattle and horses) as he held court in a small office that was always full of magazines, newspapers, and students.

Leeson didn’t have formal control over what we wrote or published, though he would offer advice any time you asked for it. People often remember him for preaching the value of pure objectivity in journalism and nonfiction. What I remember is his emphasis on the value of letting us screw up, making our own mistakes and dealing with the consequences. I made plenty of them, so I should know. At various points during my student-journalism career, I OD’d on the attention you could get by using the blunt tool of being bratty and offensive. Outwardly, I would laugh off the criticism I received. Inwardly, I was bothered by it. Jim, true to form, saw through my posturing and quietly helped me come to terms with the fact that I had some growing up to do.

Since I stayed close to Jim over the years—we even went on a couple of restaurant-binge vacations together, including one to New Orleans just before I started working on the Willie McGee project—people would sometimes ask if I regarded him as a father figure.

No, not really. I had a father who worked just fine as a father figure, and it was he who changed my life by suggesting out of the blue one day that I transfer to Vanderbilt from the state college I was attending in Kansas. My dad, Dr. Kenneth M. Heard, grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, and went to Ole Miss, so like many Southerners he knew that Vanderbilt had a reputation for housing a top-notch English department. Since English seemed to be what I was interested in—however vaguely—he broached the subject one day, during a typically not-wordy conversation between us that went something like this.

“I think you should apply to Vanderbilt. You seem like you want to be a writer, and they have a real literary tradition there.”

“Okay.” Pause. “Where is it?”

My dad was losing a battle with lung cancer at that time, so it was no small thing that I went off to a school so far away. (I now think it was generous of him, selfish of me.) When he died in 1979, I was, as it happened, at Leeson’s farm, taking part in a springtime picnic and softball game that he hosted for students every year. My family had been trying to find me all day—no cell phones, of course—and they finally called Leeson’s place and got him on the line.

Once he knew the basics, he came out and pulled me off the softball field, took me inside, and gave me the news with a mix of understanding and compassion that I’ll always remember. No, he wasn’t my father—he was a friend and mentor who just happened to be 27 years older than me. But on that day—and on a lot of days—he treated me like a son.

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15 responses to “James T. Leeson, 1930-2010

  1. Alex, I meant to say earlier how moving I found this tribute. Thanks.

  2. Ann Liberman

    Alex, I am so sorry for your loss…… Your reference to Jim on fb led me to this beautiful tribute. Now I know.

  3. We’ve not yet met, in person. But I was at Jim’s kitchen table the Saturday before he left us, and he was eager to open the box containing your page proofs, and walk us thru the history of this amazing story.

    If you will be at Jim’s on Thursday, I hope to say hello.

    B.J. Stiles
    former editor, motive magazine
    now retired, living in San Francisco

    • Hello, Mr. Stiles–

      Jim wrote me about your visit in one of the last messages I got from him. It’s great to hear from you, and I look forward to meeting you this week. I’ll be there, for sure.

  4. Ferrell Alman, Sr.

    Alex, Fantastic tribute to Jim. We’ll get the oil cleaned up down here and we can go fishing again. See you at the Overlook.

    • Hi, Ferrell: Looking forward to seeing you and Jr. this week. Want to make sure you and Jr. are aware of a Facebook page that’s been set up for “friends of Jim.” It’s called VSC in the Leeson Era. Just type that into Facebook’s search window and you’ll find it.

  5. Alex, I was so sorry to hear about Jim Leeson’s death. He was such a class act, and the best kind of educator. I know he was very proud of you.

    • Pat: Sorry, I meant to write you already. Yeah, sad as hell. I’m heading east tonight to get there by Thursday for the memorial service. Note that there’s a new facebook page called VSC in the Leeson Era. If you do facebook, join up.

  6. Mark Richards

    alex, i wonder if we’ve met. leeson was so fond of many of his students at what we called “the center”. i’m from new orleans so it could have been on one of your foraging episodes. i met jimmy in the late ’60s early ’70s. he was my dad’s friend, a groomsman in my previous marriage(1979), and during many moments of my life, my father. ‘cept he was so damn far away. when ever i read rick bragg, i think of leeson; the vernacular, the wit, the tragedy, the love. he whipped me once in a stall. i was too scared to collar a calf so he hit me with the whip instead of the calf until i muscled the little beast to slip on the collar. my brother and i saw “deliverance” up in nashville when it made it’s debut. we were staying in the log cabin behind the house on the old farm down in the holler. think we slept that night? the next day we rode horses up on the trace. we happened upon a still and what appeared to be the same folk from the movie only they wuzn’t acting. it was a cultural awakening from my spoiled uptown new orleans roots. jimmy and my father had a falling out. i have so many few moments with him. it’s so sad, and it makes my brother very angry because he loved leeson so much, probably as much as our father. i’m sorry jimmy leeson.

    • Hey, Mark:

      Wow, what stories. I assume you know about the wake at the “Overlook” on Thursday. Do you still live in N.O., or elsewhere? Note that there’s a Facebook page for people interested in Leeson, it’s called VSC in the Leeson era.

  7. Jean Richards

    Alex,
    Thank you for all the wonderful stories about Jim. I am married to William Richards, Jr., and Jim was a dear friend to both of us. William is the brother of Mark (who wrote and earlier post). I met Jim shortly after my marriage to William. We were in New Orleans for Mark’s wedding (which Jim was a groomsman for). Jim took William and I to lunch at Antoine’s for our wedding gift. I still have the menu from that restaurant from that day. Later, William and I travelled to Tenn. on our way to North Carolina and spent a few days at the farm. We stayed in the log cabin with no heat, and it was winter and very cold – but we were young and didn’t care. I made gumbo for Jim at the main house, and we had a wonderful three days there with him (sledding down the hill behind the house). We named our first child after him. Her name is Bonnie Leeson Richards. She visited with Jim at the farm when she was about 4 years old. When she made her first communion, he sent her the silver cross that was his first communion gift from his parents. She treasures that gift. Our hearts are so heavy. Jim was a biological father to none, but a central father to so many. It seems impossible that we will no longer be able to pick up the phone and call him some nights to ask for counsel and advice. He will be so sorely missed. Our hearts are heavy. Sincerely, Jean Richards

  8. Susan Bouvier

    As another one of Leeson’s VSC kids, I understand the indescribable.

    Thank you for being with him when many of us could not.

  9. Alex, very well written. I was moved..I know Jim would have been as well. Sorry I missed the wake. I drank a shot of Jim Beam last might in his honor.

  10. Bill (Willard M.) Lewis

    The Jimmy Leeson I knew was not the academic one or the surrogate father to so many. He and I were in what then was Mississippi Southern College at Hattiesburg, and we worked together part-time for the Hattiesburg American.
    Jimmy and I were friends off-campus and away from work. One of my fondest memories is that of driving with him to Gulfport in a Dusenberg that he and his father had found on blocks in a black woman’s garage, and worked together to restore. The attempt at reconciliation through work with his dad did not succeed.
    My family, which included two sons, and I visited Jimmy several times when he lived in the pre-Civil War dog-leg cottage with the clay-daubed fireplace, two stories front, one (the kitchen) rear, where his single Klipsch cornerhorn stood, and which he would play–mostly organ music but also Wagner’s Ring cycle, at full volume, so he could hear it anywhere he went around the place.
    A collector of clocks, antiques and primitives, Leeson in our honor would wind up every clock in the place, to remind us in an indelible way that midnight had arrived. Later, when he’d bought a log cabin for a guest house and moved it to his place and re-erected it, complete with hidden door to the attic, we shivered through cold nights and even colder baths–small price to pay for the pleasure our sons had in riding Sonny Bee and Jim’s other horses around the bucolic area.
    For my wife and me, Jimmy would take us antiquing in Nashville or Franklin. On one excursion he found a round English railway station clock missing its pendulum; he poked around until he found the pendulum and we bought the instrument, which still keeps perfect time in my older son’s former bedroom.
    The cottage with its split rail fence, a city block beyond the Harpeth River across which Jimmy built a covered bridge with a gate he could open by remote control from the house, was such a picturesque place that advertisers used it as a backdrop for television commercials. It seemed ideal for him and we thought he would never leave. But his part of the world was discovered by music industry executives who started buying up land nearby and building McMansions. It was then that Jim fled to a more sparsely settled area on the ridge, and built another house with a magnificent view–and kitchen cabinet tops of walnut he cut on the property.
    We visited (from Little Rock) a time or two after Jim had moved to the new place, but it never seemed quite the same.
    The Leeson I knew was one-of-a-kind. Informed about everything, knowledgeable in everything from antiques to the classic pipe organs of Europe, querulous at times, a gourmet, he was a never-ending source of entertainment and surprises. After a spin around the neighborhood in his pickup, we returned to the house to discover that a skunk had found something of interest in the driveway. Without a word, Jim reached behind, unhinged his shotgun and dispatched the little stinker without leaving the truck.
    Ours was one of those friendships that could survive long periods of non-contact and then resume where we’d last left off. I’ve not gotten accustomed to the idea that I can give him a call and invite myself over for a weekend.
    Now, I know I’ll never get accustomed to it.

  11. Susan Bouvier

    I just read an article that Jim wrote in 1966 on desegregation in the South for “Saturday Review”.

    The article is the proverbial “proof in the pudding” of what he taught us about journalism…the facts reported with integrity.

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