RIP, Jim Leeson
Too many ill tidings from Nashville. The awful flooding, of course, word of which has traveled far. Unrelated to the disaster is the recent death of Jim Leeson, word of which hasn't traveled so far. I heard about it on Facebook this morning from Nashville journalist Tom Wood, whom I knew at Vanderbilt a good many years ago.
"It breaks my heart to report that Jim Leeson took his own life over the weekend," Tom wrote. "He shot himself on a back road near his home in rural Williamson County. He had been worried lately about a decline in mental acuity that he perceived, though Nicki and I did not see it in our frequent visits with him and almost daily phone conversations. He had some chronic physical issues as well.
"Jim would have been 80 on May 13. Now an Irish wake is planned for that day, to take place on the deep-woods overlook he built in the 1990s to serve as a party venue. Some of you may not even remember Jim very well, but he took pride in the achievements of all the old Tunnel-Rats, and he asked about many of you over the years."
I remember Leeson well. The "Tunnel-Rats" Tom mentioned were student staff members of the various Vanderbilt Student Communications (VSC) media: the newspaper, magazine, yearbook and radio station, among other things. Their offices were all located along a windowless tunnel through Sarratt Student Center. I spent a lot of time there in the early '80s.
Leeson was an advisor to VSC at the time. Truth is, I don't know when he started doing that or when he stopped; he was there the entire time I was a part of VSC. I also don't know much about his previous career as a professional journalist or the details about how he actually made his living by the 1980s, which was as a real estate broker in Williamson County. In his capacity as VSC advisor, he was the grownup among the kids, but not an overbearing presence sent by the university. He gave good advice.
During my senior year, Dan Monroe and I wanted to persuade the VSC board -- all students, plus Leeson -- to fund the publication of a comic book we'd dreamed up, inspired by a previous work by Geof Huth. We made a presentation to the other members, and then withdrew to let them discuss it. I doubt they would have given us anything but for a compromise suggestion by Leeson (I'm pretty sure it was his idea, anyway): we had to sell some ads to pay for part of the thing, just like any normal pub. And so in the fall of '82 we were able to publish The Cosmic Cowboys. Not a bad collegiate effort, I think, from the perspective of 30 years. I'm glad we got to do it, regardless, and I can thank Leeson for his support.
Leeson periodically invited groups of us to his home in Williamson County -- out of Nashville on a major highway, then along a smaller road, then along a gravel road to his gate. He had a fine country home surrounded by the forested hills of Middle Tennessee; he had an expanse of land; and he had livestock and dogs. We ate, talked and got away from our student concerns during a day at Leeson's. Leeson was always a hospitable host. I don't remember anyone who didn't like going out to Leeson's.
After VU graduation ceremonies on May 13, 1983, a number of us newly minted graduates went out to Leeson's -- with our parents and other family members too -- for a few hours after lunch at the Loveless Cafe. I remember that excursion a lot more fondly that the actual graduation ceremony. (I didn't know until now that was his 53rd birthday, too.)
The last time I saw him was probably in '85 or '86, when Steve Freitag, former Versus editor, came to town. When visiting Nashville, the thing to do was visit Leeson too. So I went with Steve and (I think) another former Versus Tunnel-Rat, Pete Wilson. I can't say that I remember any details of that particular visit, but I'm certain we had an enjoyable time. We always did at Leeson's. Perhaps by this May 13, I can find some Tennessee whiskey -- I've got some Jack somewhere -- to toast to the memory of Jim Leeson.