Op-ed: Remembering Dean McLeod
Washington University is a historic and iconic campus. Our library recently received from the family of Eric and Evelyn Newman an early copy of the Declaration of Independence, which will go on display this month in Olin Library. Opposite that exhibit, from an alumnus’ private collection, will be posted an early printing of the Emancipation Proclamation, from a decade when William Greenleaf Eliot was president of the board (Recall his portrait in Holmes Lounge). Happily, a recent magazine article ranked Wash. U.’s campus as the very best (in terms of environment and amenities), but more importantly, our Oxbridge-inspired Gothic campus continues developing to the east (as we all know from parking). This will forever change the landscape of St. Louis, at least in a small way.
But history and architecture without people is a museum. Our greatest resource as a University remains in special individuals and relationships that affect positive change.
One special person who changed my life and many others was Dean Jim McLeod. He spent a tenure of 37 years here as a German professor, John B. Ervin scholarship program director, primary colleague to the previous Chancellor Bill Danforth as well as the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and vice chancellor for student affairs (the scope of this role included undergraduate admissions).
Dean McLeod was a private person and I do not presume to speak for him or want to share our private conversations. But I can share a few stories about what he did and what he was able to accomplish.
Before he passed away in 2011, a scholarship was endowed in his name. In a rare public presentation about his life, a slideshow gave his answer to the question, “What was your most important or favorite college experience?” His answer was the civil rights movement.
He gave orientation for the incoming College of Arts & Sciences freshmen in the Edison Theatre (“go to class, go to class, go to class”) the week before classes started. For many we met him first at this event. The magic of the first month of college may have affected my memory, but I believe that the first time I spoke to him, he knew my name before I introduced myself. This was a common theme with Dean McLeod—to take the effort to get to know each person. Seeing him months or years later, he could call you by name as if you had just left the room and come back.
And when I took a semester off to retool during sophomore year, he arranged for me a tutor through Cornerstone to maintain my study of Mandarin (my eventual degree), because he saw me as a person of strengths and talents even when I was not at my best.
This combination of sense of history, genuine presence and commitment to mastery in intellectual pursuit is the spirit of our College of Arts & Sciences. And it is what can differentiate us from the “top ten” schools, which we may never displace in endowment funds or US News & World Report rankings (we will still try).
We can keep this specialty by remembering Dean McLeod and trying to emulate his qualities. As some of his colleagues have retired (but not left entirely), I am grateful to see this same spirit in the leadership of Dr. Lori White (vice chancellor for student affairs) and Dean Jen Smith (dean of the college), among others. Associate Vice Chancellor Leah Merrifield (here 22 years) carries the torch with Wash. U.’s College Prep program for area high school students.
If you take something away from this letter, ask a Wash. U. community member who was here in 2011 or before about Dean McLeod. I promise they will have their own special story with as much depth as mine. The common theme is that you left each meeting with Dean McLeod feeling inspired, and he and others coordinated resources to give you even greater opportunities. You knew better—and moved closer to being—your best self simply by interacting with him.
The Ervin Scholars program compiled a wonderful book of life lessons from Dean McLeod called “Habits of Achievement” that is available in the campus bookstore for ten dollars, and notably the late Dean McLeod’s wife, Mrs. Clara McLeod, is here as our Earth & Planetary Sciences librarian.
AB 2011 and Chair of the Washington University in St. Louis Young Alumni Network