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.