|Leland directing Tulanians at a 2011 reunion.|
Many of us knew him when he was a young man, starting out as the director of student activities at Tulane University 45 years ago. Part of his job was leading a singing group, the Tulanians. It might sound insignificant, but membership in the group was one of the most meaningful life experiences for at least 100 people, maybe more.
The group did recruitment for the university. Leland put us on a bus and sent us across the southern states to perform in high schools, shopping malls, chapels, wherever, during our Easter and Christmas vacations. We did it happily. We felt like the great bands of the 1940s and 1950s, traveling from state to state, partying in the bus and hotels. It seemed like an adventure and a privilege. Finally, he took the Tulanians to Germany to perform with the USO. I didn't realize until much later how much work it must have been to corral 20 unruly college students and what a tremendous accomplishment.
The Tulanians put on annual fall show in the Ratskeller, the dungeon-like beer hall in the student union. We also presented a two-hour spring show that was standing room only. The Spring Show became bigger and more extravagant as the years went on with a full band, costumes, choreography and multimedia - cutting edge for the era. It was a lot of work, a team effort requiring long, late-night rehearsals. As a result, we remain close friends today. We've returned to New Orleans, again and again, to relive those experiences until we, quite frankly, can't sing anymore.
The crux of this story is that Leland passed away. Many have e-mailed about what he meant to them - as a mentor, a friend, a model. One wrote last week:
Over the years, most of us have had the good fortune to know people who taught us, influenced our future and ultimately changed the way we lived. Certainly for me, and think for most of this group, Leland was one of those people. His teaching was done through application, not theory. His “class” emphasized working hard with each other toward shared goals, producing the best possible results, supporting each other, being committed to what we were doing, taking individual responsibility for performance and setting expectations for ourselves that exceeded what we thought our capabilities might be. Finally, he expected us to have fun while doing all of this.
Leland also directed student activities and later managed the "UC." After Katrina, the student union would be rebuilt so he supervised the architects and constractors. On top of that, he was a working musician who played saxophone in big bands throughout the city. He headed his own big band, Jubilation, for 25 years. He directed the orchestra for Summer Lyric Theater productions. That, in addition to having a family and being an active member of his church. He worked constantly, tirelessly and without complaint. I wondered if he could ever retire?
Leland was diagnosed with multiple myeloma last fall. Initially, we thought it was manageable with medication. He had planned to retire from Tulane in December and thought he could focus better on his health. At his January retirement party, attended by 150 former students, musicians, colleagues and family, we hoped he would benefit from a stem cell transplant. But then there were further medical complications.
The storm created a lot of stress on everyone. It is overwhelming waiting and anticipating. Leland suffered an aneurism two days after Isaac hit - or maybe before. He knew he didn't feel well, but didn't go to the hospital. Even lying in the hospital bed, I thought, he is a mountain of a man - not even diminished by this terrible illness.
One close friend said his death left a hole in her life. Another said, simply, he cared for me. That sounds like a small statement, but how many people truly do? He not only sympathized with individuals, he did something for them. Many people may say, "I'm sorry" when something bad happens, but Leland reached out and helped almost everyone he knew. A soft-spoken and unassuming man, he could be incredibly eloquent when the moment arose as it did at his retirement party.
He said over and over this past year, that he wouldn't have done anything different. His life had been perfect. He had made so many wonderful friends.
I spoke about him last night to a mutual friend. She said: "If you needed five dollars and Leland only had five, he'd give them to you." That said, he always seemed to have money, even though he literally gave it away. I don't know anyone who ever went to lunch or dinner with Leland and paid the bill.
This morning, I read this passage by Michael Beckwith: "What I realize so clearly is that we are not born, nor do we die. The truth is we appear, disappear and reappear. As the Bhagavad Gita says, "N'er the Spirit was born, n'er shall it die."
In truth, you are a birthless, deathless being who has the privilege to appear and disappear on the planet, always revealing more and never less than your true self."