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James Earl McLeod Obituary: Revered Washington University dean

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 7, 2011 - After a 19-day sit-in in 2005, including six days on a hunger strike, Washington University students who had demanded a "living wage" for university janitors and groundskeepers were ready to make a deal. So was the administration. But before a settlement could be reached, the students wanted to know what the protest would cost them.

They needed to hear from James E. McLeod, vice chancellor of students and the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Dean McLeod assured students that their punishment would probably be community service rather than suspension.

"Getting people to understand each other and come to a sensible conclusion, that was always his goal," said former Washington University Chancellor William H. Danforth. "He was always good at that."

James McLeod, whom Danforth said had created an "amazing undergraduate culture" at Wash U, died Tuesday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 2009. Dean McLeod was 67 and had lived in St. Louis near the university.

A vigil Tuesday night drew more than 100 students to the Brookings quad where protesters had once set up camp. Now, a flag flies at half-mast. A memorial event to honmor Dean McLeod's life and service will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9 in the university's Athletic Complex Field House.

"Washington University has lost one of its greatest citizens and leaders today," said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton in an announcement. "No single individual has had a greater impact on the vitality and the quality of student life at this University."

Learn What You Love

In his online welcome to incoming students, Dean McLeod leads with a simple message: "You can learn what you love."

It's the philosophy he had shared with Washington University students for nearly four decades.

He joined the university as assistant professor of German in 1974 and subsequently served as assistant to then-Chancellor William Danforth and later as director of African and African-American Studies. He was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 1992 and was named to the dual role of vice chancellor for students in 1995.

He was also director of the Danforth Scholars Program and the John B. Ervin Scholars Program, initially named the John B. Ervin Scholars Program for Black Americans.

In 1986, Dean McLeod helped students create the Ervin program, which was named in honor of the first African-American dean at Washington University.

On the university's website, Stephanie Lewis, the 1986 president of Washington University's Association of Black Students, acknowledged Dean McLeod, whom even students called "Jim."

"It began with a conversation Jim McLeod and I were having one day," Lewis said. "Jim took it from a conversation to making it happen."

It was just one of many initiatives Dean McLeod was credited with spearheading to support students.

In 2007, he was named one of St. Louis' most influential minority business leaders by the St. Louis Business Journal. The paper honored him for playing a major role in several undergraduate efforts, including improving dormitory living and building new small-group housing; strengthening the undergraduate advising system; enhancing career planning and placement services; enriching the mix of seminar experiences for freshmen and helping initiate and shape the expanded study-abroad program.

An Ideal Human Being

In a 2005 profile, he told Student Life, Wash U's independent student newspaper, that in his life he was most proud of "reasonable progress at being a decent human being."

Danforth suggested that he more than succeeded.

"He was in many respects the ideal human being," Danforth said.

Last year, just one year after it was established, he inspired nearly 800 gifts to endow the James E. McLeod Scholarship.

"When we raised a scholarship in his honor, an enormous number of people responded," Danforth said. "Dr. Wrighton said he'd never seen anything like it before. People loved Jim McLeod, as did I."

The class of 2010 donated all funds raised through the senior class gift drive to the McLeod Scholars Program.

Just hours after Dean McLeod's death, thousands were giving their final tributes. Memories in words and pictures flooded the Dean James E. McLeod remembrance page on Facebook. At 10 p.m. the Ervin Scholars showed their love in a decidedly low-tech way: a vigil.

Melissa Cochran, a senior Ervin scholar from New Orleans, said the group had met to plan the honor for their mentor quickly.

"We talked about all the things he'd done for us," Cochran said. "The general consensus was that he was more than just a mentor; he truly cared about each individual. He made you feel like you were the most important person in the world."

A Lasting Legacy

James Earl McLeod's academic career had taken him a long way from his hometown of Dothan, Ala., dubbed "The Peanut Capital of the World," where he was born July 29, 1944.

He received his undergraduate degree from Morehouse College and his graduate degree from Rice University. He studied at the University of Vienna in Austria.

Prior to joining Washington University, he taught German at Indiana University in Bloomington. His research included the cultural history of turn-of-the-century Vienna and post-war Germany.

He was a member of the board of trustees of the St. Louis Art Museum, American Youth Foundation, National Council on Youth Leadership, Mary Institute Country Day School and Churchill Center & School for Learning Disabilities. He had chaired the Express Scripts Foundation and the Advisory Board of New City School.

His honors included the Washington University Founder's Day distinguished faculty award in 1991, and the 2010 Eliot Society award, given annually to an outstanding member of the university community. The same year that he received the Business Journal award, 2007, he shared the University's Rosa L. Parks award for meritorious service to the community with his longtime friend and colleague, William Danforth.

Last June, he received the Coro leadership award.

When he was named the 2008 St. Louis American's salute to excellence in education lifetime achiever, he told the newspaper he had a terrific job because "I am doing something that can last for generations."

Dean McLeod was preceded in death by his mother, Earline McLeod. His survivors include his wife, Clara, to whom he would have been married for 44 years on Friday, and their daughter, Sara McLeod, of Atlanta. He is also survived by his father, the Rev. James C. McLeod of Dothan, Ala.; a brother, Jeff McLeod of Birmingham, Ala., and two sisters, Alice Head and Mary Parker, both of Dothan.

Visitation for Dean McLeod will be 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9, at the Austin Layne Normandy Chapel, 7733 Natural Bridge Road, Normandy. The funeral service for family and close friends will be at 11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 10, at Cote  Brilliante Presbyterian Church, 4673 Labadie Avenue, St. Louis. Burial will be in South Carolina. Washington University will hold a memorial event at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9 in the Athletic Complex Field House.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial gifts to the James E. McLeod Scholars Fund. Please make checks payable to Washington University and send to Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1082, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis Mo. 63130.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service. 

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