James T. Leeson, Jr., 1930-2010
James T. Leeson, Jr., 1930-2010
As my friend Thom Jurkovich noted, it probably is too hard to really explain Leeson, you either get it or you don’t, so I’ll leave it to the deeper talents of guys like Alex Heard and Charlie Euchner who have so eloquently eulogized him and analyzed his legacy, and just contribute to the broader historical Leeson database three particular image-stories that come to mind.
For those many of you who don’t understand these references, just know that last week a great man named Jim Leeson took his leave of us, at least until we catch up in our own due time. In addition to his many generous acts of mentorship and kindness, he left me with one specific parting gift: the chance to point to an obituary (with picture, mind you) in the national edition of the New York Times and say, “Man, him and me, we sure used to have a good time pounding cocktails together.” For those of you interested in the details of record, click here:
Of course, if you want the real story, there’s a much better one here, since it was written by someone who knew Jim so well:
Now, for the stories.
First, about six months ago, I brought my wife and children (two boys, then ten and seven, and my three-year-old daughter) back home to New Orleans, where my extended family was celebrating my mother’s 80th birthday with a luncheon for relatives and close friends at the Southern Yacht Club. We had dressed the kids up for the party, and by some miracle, despite all the running around and playing you get with kids that age, neither one of the boys took off their jackets or even loosened their ties the entire time. Now, while these boys are reasonably well-behaved, I can assure you that they’re hardly little robots, and you tend to get an interesting spectrum of moods and behaviors over any three-hour period. Nevertheless, there they were, handling business all day in front of my oft-judgmental French New Orleans Gothic relatives.
I know it seems like a such small matter, a father’s fleeting, ephemeral impression, but with all that was going on that day, I specifically remember having a private thought to myself that this was the kind of thing Leeson liked to see: kids being kids, but having at least a rudimentary understanding, appropriate to their level, of what might be expected of them as little men. And I felt proud about it, because I believed it to be a matter about which Leeson would be quietly pleased. I can assure you that in dealing with my sons this was not the first time I’d had Leeson-thoughts establishing residence in my head, Obi-Wan Kenobi-style, nor will it be the last.
Second Leeson story: It was not long after graduation on one of my trips to Nashville, before Jim had achieved persona non grata status at Vanderbilt, and Leeson and I decided to catch up over a couple of cocktails at lunch. We had headed down to Rotier’s, sat down, got the menus, went to order drinks….and remembered/realized that Rotier’s didn’t serve hard liquor. What do you mean, we can’t get bloody marys? After 30 seconds of deliberation, trying to decide whether or not we were mature people just happy to catch up, Leeson looks up and says, “Shit, well, I guess we’ve gotta have bloody marys. We can go on over up t’ the University Club.” So we hand the menus back, get up and drive over the University Club, to get hammered good and proper on bloody marys. Would it have been more mature to stay at Rotier’s and settle for a beer for lunch? Maybe. I mean, who gets up in that situation and leaves a weekday lunch in search of bloodys because getting a mild beer buzz just isn’t quite enough? Lemme tell you something, son, there are standards, dammit, there are standards.
Finally, last story. After two years of sportswriting, followed by law school and a clerkship, I had landed in New York City as a corporate lawyer for a Wall Street law firm. Through some combination of boredom, early mid-life crisis, and what have you, I decided to see if I could get into the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I was never going to be Sy Hersh, and I was probably more red beans and rice than Grantland Rice, but I had it in my head that I should see about giving this a try. I completed all the application materials, got some old writing samples, wrote the essays, and picked up the phone and called Leeson to ask humbly for a reference. Of course, Leeson was great about it, but he also did both me and quality journalism a huge favor, and sobered me up.
I don’t have the exact quotes, but I do remember that we talked for a good while. The great thing about Leeson is that he doesn’t lecture, or even advise, he just suggests. He said he’d be happy to give me a good reference. He also suggested that when I came out the other side, this was going to be a grind, an even harder life than a Wall Street career, it was going to be a tough way to make a living, and if I really wanted to write, one option would be that I could think about maybe just going out and making a good living doing something else, and having the freedom to write what I wanted to write, instead of what I had to write. While we were talking, he called me “Jay.” Leeson wants to make a point, he uses your first name. Leeson’s using your first name, you better listen. And Leeson never liked to tell anybody what to do, but when he calls you by your first name and he makes a suggestion, you really better listen.
I sent in the application, he sent in the reference, and I got accepted. Of course, I politely thanked the nice people at Columbia, but declined their invitation and went back to lawyering. Leeson was right. I sort of stuck to my knitting since then, and I’ve been so very fortunate to have developed the wherewithal to settle down and raise three kids, or at least try to. And while I’m not sure even Leeson foresaw the growth of the internet and the self-publishing game, in 2000, in response to the best season my beloved New Orleans Saints ever had up to that point, I started writing weekly post-game summaries that I would circulate by email to about five or six old New Orleans friends, hoping to spark dialogue among us and keep us in touch.
Of course, instead of everybody e-mailing each other, what I got instead was, “Gee, this is great, you going to do one next week?” I’ve largely kept it up ever since, and it serves to satisfy whatever writing Jones ails me from time to time. Last fall, I finally got off my lazy ass, set up this here www.girodstreetendzone.com and started publishing the summaries in a Saints-themed blog format to make it easier for friends and friends of friends to pass along. I am thus lucky enough to have the best of both worlds, thanks largely to Jim’s suggestion 20 years ago, and I don’t log on to my website and start writing without thinking about him.
Thanks, Jim. You will never be forgotten by those who knew and loved you, and your work echoes on beyond us through our work and the lives of our children. To steal and tweak from R.E.M., I’ll see you in heaven if I make the list.
– The Goat