A Guiding Hand

James E. McLeod (1944–2011), who passed away Sept. 6, 2011, touched the lives of countless students and alumni as dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

In 2009, Washington University established a scholarship program to honor then-Dean James E. McLeod for his more than 30 years of service to students. Above, he met with the first cohort of McLeod Scholars: (from left) Ana Solorio (also a Rodriguez Scholar), Michele Hall (also an Ervin Scholar) and Dylan Simonsen (also a Danforth Scholar). (Mary Butkus)

Watch your thoughts; they become words.
Watch your words; they become actions.
Watch your actions; they become habits.
Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

—Author unknown, used by Dean James McLeod in his annual “Habits of Achievement” lecture to incoming Ervin Scholars

To his family and closest friends, he was Sonny; to his wife, Clara, he was James. Around the university, where he spent his 36-year career, admiring colleagues called him Jim, while his longtime assistant director in the Ervin Scholars Program, Dorothy Elliott, dubbed him “the Chief.” Some Ervins thought of him affectionately as “the Highlander,” a science-fiction character, also named James McLeod, who fought off mythical monsters with skill and heroism.

But to thousands of students, he was — and always will be — Dean McLeod. Officially, that was his title: Since 1992, he had been dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and in 1995, he also became vice chancellor for students. So he had a giant job, overseeing all aspects of the student experience for thousands of undergraduates. In another role, close to his heart, he founded and directed the John B. Ervin Scholars Program, the first scholarship program at the university for African-American students.

Still, “Dean McLeod” was more than a formal label. It was a term of highest respect for a man who epitomized kindness, modesty, patience, generosity and wisdom — an incomparable listener and a tireless advocate for students. They knew that he believed in them and would help them reach their full potential.

“Dean McLeod made you feel as if you had something to offer, and that you could do whatever you chose,” says Ervin Scholar Michelle Purdy, PhD, AB ’01, MA ’03, assistant professor of race, culture and equity in education at Michigan State University. “He would help to make your vision real and help you decide your most effective role.”

“Even though he was probably the busiest person on campus, he never made any student feel he was too busy to talk with them,” says Sharon Stahl, associate vice chancellor for students and dean of the First Year Center. “That warmth, that incredible smile and the hugs he gave them — students knew he was the real thing. He was very caring, and he always had time for them.”

In 2009, McLeod fell ill with cancer, though he continued to work — a little thinner, a little slower on his daily walk to work, but never complaining — and maintain his nonstop schedule. That year, the university established a scholarship program in his name, which attracted some $4 million in funds. On Sept. 6, 2011, just as the new semester was starting, he died of cancer-related complications.

At his memorial service on Oct. 9 in the Washington University Field House, friends and family members, including his daughter, Sara, honored his memory with sad, funny, warm tributes. Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth asked all those to stand who believed that Dean McLeod had “led Washington University to be a more humane, more caring institution.” Everyone in the crowded space stood up, including dozens of Ervin Scholars who had flown in for the occasion.

Afterward, some recalled their introduction to the dean. For Levi Funches, MD, AB ’98, it came during the “finalist weekend” for Ervin Scholars. McLeod approached him to say how much he had enjoyed a letter of recommendation sent by Funches’ pastor and mentioned that his own father — the Rev. James C. McLeod of Dothan, Ala. — was a minister too.

“As an African-American male, I needed role models,” says Funches, now a neonatology fellow at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “To see another African-American man in such a prominent position, I thought: ‘I have to pattern my life after somebody, and I can’t think of a better person to have as my life’s inspiration.’”

McLeod’s spiritual upbringing infused his life and his work, says Dorothy Elliott. “Turn the other cheek, treat others the way you want to be treated, love your enemies, go the extra mile. It was total, unconditional love — that’s what it was — and he did it with such grace,” she says.

Parents also enjoyed meeting Dean McLeod. When sophomore Michele Hall was considering Washington University, her mother worried about a school so far from their Maryland home. But after meeting the dean, “She felt, ‘I know they will keep an eye out for you; they won’t let anything happen to you,’” says Hall, an Ervin and McLeod Scholar, of her mother’s thoughts.

Year after year, Ervin Scholar Miles Grier, AB ’00, would return to Freshman Orientation to hear McLeod’s familiar yet always-inspiring address, “The Habits of Achievement”: Don’t rely on talent or intelligence alone; consider effort the prime determinant of your achievement. Take 100 percent responsibility for every organization you join.

“He was always giving us challenges to achieve at a higher level of excellence,” says Grier, who received his PhD from New York University and is today a postdoctoral fellow at Duke. “Now he has left us a final challenge, and it’s a big one: to pass on the wisdom he imparted in the humble spirit in which he gave it to us. It will take all of us to fill his shoes and to carry on his good work.”

Whenever students spent time with him, they came away happier. In spring 2011, the three initial McLeod Scholars — Hall, Dylan Simonsen and Ana Solorio — took Dean McLeod and his wife to dinner. On the way there, the students felt stressed by deadlines and work; on the way back, they felt cheerful and inspired.

“In one hour, we completely changed our outlook,” says Solorio, a sophomore chemical engineering student and also a Rodriguez Scholar. “The conversations you had with him were so meaningful. Even when I saw him on the go, just saying hi brought a smile to my face.”

Somehow, he talked people into things they’d never dreamed of doing. When Margaret West met him in the 1970s, she was a PhD student and he was her German professor. She remained friends with him and his wife through her career, culminating in a fine administrative post at Johns Hopkins University. McLeod had often hinted that Washington University would love to have her, but when he called in 2010 and urgently asked again, she left her job right away to become associate director of the Ervin Scholars Program.

For all his extraordinary virtues, Dean McLeod was not quite perfect. He drove a little too fast, his office was perpetually a mess, and he didn’t know everything. Elliott once asked him a health-related question, and he eyed her quizzically. “He said, ‘Mrs. Elliott — I am not a medical doctor.’ And I said, ‘Well, you answer all my other questions; I thought you might know.’”

Yet he was a father figure, mentor and friend to thousands of people, none of whom will ever forget him. “He was the greatest man I’ve had the pleasure to meet and know,” Hall says. “You’d see him outside, his jacket billowing in the wind, and he was like Superman to everyone. We just never thought Superman would stop flying.”

Candace O’Connor is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.

Learn more about the John B. Ervin Scholars Program.

Comments and respectful dialogue are encouraged, but content will be moderated. Please, no personal attacks, obscenity or profanity, selling of commercial products, or endorsements of political candidates or positions. We reserve the right to remove any inappropriate comments. We also cannot address individual medical concerns or provide medical advice in this forum.