Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Man in Full: Jim Leeson, 1930-2010

Posted By on Thu, May 6, 2010 at 11:46 AM

Jim Leeson (1985 photo)
  • Jim Leeson (1985 photo)
If you've never heard of James T. Leeson Jr., that's just how he wanted things.

Ask him about his role in the Civil Rights Movement, and he would steer the conversation from his own activities to the tragicomic foibles of people on all sides of it, white and black. Ask him about the neurotics, cranks, paupers and princes he mentored in Vanderbilt's Sarratt Tunnel as adult supervisor of the university's student journalists, and he could cite an instance when just about every one of them had shown his or her (usually his) ass.

Ask about a wealthy Franklin pooh-bah, and he would tell you who the guy was sleeping with that month. Ask for his praline recipe, and he would change the subject.

Thing is, when you could get Jim to speak of the Civil Rights days, his accounts were consistently laced with understanding and even affection toward the racist whites, confused liberals, power-hungry black preachers and corrupt officials of both races that he had in his sights.

The same ambiguity held when he talked about the people he had mentored at Vanderbilt, many of whom have gone on to carve out national and global reputations in journalism and other fields of endeavor. His devotion to them was clearly the life's work of this lifelong bachelor. Yet his friendship was often most valuable when he was calling out lapses by those he liked.

Of the many people who have mourned Jim since he was found dead of a gunshot wound on Monday near his Williamson County home, having killed himself after minutely organizing his demise to make it as convenient as possible for all who were part of his life, his onetime colleague, Nashville author John Egerton, may have gotten to his core most effectively:

He was a singular figure, a man virtually unknown publicly yet loved and hated, admired and feared by a broad swath of the rich and famous, poor and anonymous multitude. In the 45 years I knew him, he never did anything except on his own terms. That was his way, no exceptions. I guess death was no different. It would have been out of character for him to go the way most of us go — quietly, with all the unspoken protocols and formalities predictably observed.

Jim Leeson was a close friend of mine from my freshman year at Vanderbilt in 1982 until he left this world. He was a friend and admirer of Scene editor Jim Ridley. Nothing about this post pretends to be objective. But I do think he was an important enough person to merit notice here.

Jim, who has managed to turn up posthumously in The New York Times this very morning, would have been 80 on May 13. He hated attention at his birthday as he hated being the focus of attention in any situation. I had lost track of his date of birth since a celebration of his 70th in 2000, and he had called last month. No point in being coy, he said, agreeing to let my wife and me with friends bring him dinner on May 14.

Now a wake is planned for May 13, to take place on the overlook next to his home where Jim hosted so many parties over the years.

Born in North Carolina, Leeson moved between Carolina and Mississippi during his childhood. He vividly remembered attending the 1939 World's Fair in New York with his mother. She would later come to live with him after losing her home to Hurricane Camille in 1969 and would remain on his Williamson County property until she died in 1983.

He graduated from what is now the University of Southern Mississippi and then spent time in the Navy aboard P-3 anti-submarine aircraft that were equipped, he later said, with nuclear-armed torpedoes. Leeson took a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University in 1958.

After a few years working for the Associated Press, Leeson joined the Southern Education Reporting Service by 1963, according to press accounts. The SERS was funded by the Ford Foundation and provided a rare impartial perspective on what was happening in Southern educational systems.

Jim was not an activist. He was a realist. As editor at SERS and its successor, the Race Relations Reporter, he presided over a non-commercial news operation that sought no public glory but carried influence in high places — following something of a pattern for his later life. An example of the RRR's work is available in Google's news archive at this link.

Working with him at the publication were several young writers who would go on to much bigger things — including Egerton, North Carolina journalist Frye Gaillard, Time columnist and senior editor Jack E. White Jr. and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright. Leeson was greatly amused when Wright told an interviewer a few years ago what a bastard his unnamed first boss had been.

Charlotte Observer editor C.A. McKnight was on the board of the SERS and so had a dog in its fight, but his 1969 comments about it are nonetheless compelling:

"Future historians will have to evaluate the contribution of SERS to public education. But it would seem clear even now that without the factual information made available throughout the South, and without the central store of information that guided journalists, magazine writers, radio and television networks and public officials at all levels, the South would have had more difficulty picking its way along a dim and uncertain path. In thoroughness, accuracy and objectivity, it is without parallel in the history of U.S. journalism."

It's no surprise to find that a soul as cantankerous as Jim's ended up crosswise with the Ford Foundation, which pulled its funding from the RRR in 1972. The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation stepped in to provide another half-million dollars in funding over the next two years, but then refused to put in any more money. The publication folded in late 1974, putting out a final issue with a blistering editorial condemning the Clark Foundation.

Leeson's tenure as consultant journalist to Vanderbilt Student Communications Inc. began soon afterward. It would end one day in 1984 when he posted a one-line, handwritten resignation letter outside his office door in the tunnel under Sarratt Student Center where campus media outlets were based. (Did I mention he could be a little cantankerous?) Someone in VU's bureaucracy had pissed him off for the last time.

Jim would later say that among other issues, VU bureaucrats had somehow menaced VSC's board chairman, the late Professor Franklin Brooks, over the fact that Brooks was gay. That power-play, Leeson said, was all about the Vanderbilt administration's desire to rein in and control the sometimes rambunctious student publications and radio station, whose independence Jim always staunchly defended.

I was deeply involved in student media at the time Jim left. I don't know how valid any of his suspicions were, but I do know the Sarratt Tunnel came under much tighter control from above once he was gone, and has remained so ever since.

I have gone on at length here, and yet I'm leaving out so much about my dead friend. I could tell you about his homemade country ham paté, limoncello and myriad other yummies. I could talk about the decades he spent advocating for the completion of the Natchez Trace Parkway (where his ashes are to be scattered from the back of his pickup truck, at his direction). I could go on about his eclectic musical tastes and many trips to Bayreuth for performances of Wagner's Ring Cycle. Hell, I could talk about what a vastly successful real estate investor he was. But let me give way to other voices.

Below are just a few statements by a few people whose lives Leeson touched. A full compilation of comments and anecdotes, at some 7,000 11,000 12,600 words and counting, is available at this link (updated on May 12th).

Goodbye, old friend.

Years ago I gave up trying to analyze Jim or describe him to others.... He was truly sui generis, though he’d laugh at that and tell me I was full of shit.
— Tom Jurkovich
Vanderbilt graduate, 1979
Senior vice president, VOX Global Mandate; former director of Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development, Nashville

He was a great, hilarious, cranky, eccentric, one-of-a-kind guy. I still can’t believe he’s gone.
Alex Heard
Vanderbilt graduate, 1980
Editorial director, Outside magazine; author of The Eyes of Willie McGee (HarperCollins, 2010)

He was the learned man living on the ridge, a rare species that only Middle Tennessee seems to still produce in any significant number.... To spend time with Jim in his element was to drink good whiskey from a silver cup while knocking the mud off your boots. You could sit on a porch admiring antiques and debating the National Magazine Awards or global politics. Jim had the rare quality of being grounded in a place, and fully vested in it, but also being a man of the world.

That spiritual duality was what I think so many of us learned from Jim, and it’s what deepened my admiration for him as the years wore on. In a world of relentless modernity, Jim preserved an eye for the enduring things in his life of the mind.
— Clark S. Parsons
Vanderbilt graduate, 1987
Managing director, Berlin School of Creative Leadership

I arrived in Nashville. Young. Precocious. And never having lived away from Britain. Thankfully there was Jim. He was the sort of person, the like of which I had never met before. A friend, a mentor and a guide. I would pop into his office and grumble about the “American ways” that I didn’t understand.

For those of us who went onto work in the media that he loved, we owe him dear. He helped kindle my real love of journalism and the art of telling people what is happening. I know I owe him dear.
— Richard Quest
Vanderbilt international exchange program participant, 1983-84
Anchor/reporter, CNN, London

Update, May 7: Further reminiscences online from author Charlie Euchner, poet Geof Huth and writer Dees Stribling

Update, May 8: Leeson obit in The New York Times.

Update, May 10: Several new reminiscences in The Compendium, which now runs to more than 11,000 words. See also these fine words from The Goat.

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