Tuesday, May 04, 2010

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.

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At 11:35 AM, Anonymous Polly DuBose said...

Jim was like family to so many of us. I think I was a teenager before a knew he wasn't really. I will miss him so very much. Our tears have been heavy, but they have been for us. I can't cry for Jim doing what he felt best.

At 7:59 AM, Anonymous Lisa Rone said...

Dees, Thank you for telling us about his death. I saw it mentioned in the New York Times today, and I was one of those who with my family went to Jim's home in 1983 after graduation. He was a quietly strong mentor, fellow Mississipian and easy to celebrate with that day. It was far harder to say goodbye to him, as it is now. He had an easy, gentle style we all loved.
Lisa Rone

At 9:15 AM, Anonymous Leslie Bishop said...

we are/were Jims closest (by mileage) neighbors. We bought land from him in 2000 and built around the corner from his home. He had moved from the farm many of you knew to another piece of land on backbone ridge. We thank all of you who are writing and bloging about his life. your words have helped us a lot. Know that he spoke of you all often and loved you all very much, warts and all. All of us in the neighborhood were close to Jim. We are all grieving deeply. He was everyones best friend. He was the cement that brought us all together. Though he had told many of us that he would do this some day when the time was right, we can hardly believe it. We understand that to him, this was the honorable thing to do. However, I cannot believe I will never see his white truck on the road as he flys past, or hear his voice on the phone asking "where's the Bossman?" Who will kill the copper head under the dogs bowl? We will never taste rankin(sp?) again or does someone have the recipe? For those who know about his thistle passion, have no fear my husband has been well trained and is taking over the responsibility. It is the least we can do for someone who has done so much for us.

At 10:44 PM, Blogger bjsfund said...

My friend and colleague, Ron Henderson, and I spent wonderful time with Jim two days before he left us. A wonderlful reunion. We recalled many delightful days together in the l960's as lunch buddies at Mack's, Ireland's, etc.
Will look forward to seeing others at Jim's place on Thursday.

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

At 9:32 AM, Anonymous Dawn Sutton LaFalce said...

Dees, thanks. I could never write like you all - just counted the beans. I wish I had kept in better touch

At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 1950s Jim was close the the Dickinson family and visited Mr. Joe Dickinson's day camp where as a young boy Jim seemed part of the extended family. As many of you we later rode horseback along the Natchez Trace to his farm and enjoyed evenings at his house. Jim took an interest in the whole family including our best friend Howard Dickinson, Curry Taylor, and myself. Howard and I learned to shoe horses at his place. We rode horses together, enjoyed homemade icecream and Jim was like a an older wiser uncle always open to sharing what ever he had. At highschool graduation Jim gave us gifts just before going away to college.
Years later Jim joined in a mountain pack trip in Cody,Wyoming. He always was part of our past and extended family ready to participate in life with us and was most welcomed, always. As always Jim was full of fatherly advise for young men and we listened valuing his input.

I remember when Jim went to the hospital for minor sergury and was asked about insurance. He had none but put up his 20+ cows as collateral stating that they were more than enough value. I respected Jim in many ways.
I respect his passing knowing He did not want to be a bother to anyone let alone wharehoused as a useless old man. My hat is off to Jim. It was my priviledge to have known him. To many memories, thanks. Les Burrough, Pinedale,WY


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