He left us far too early. Landrum Leavell II died last Friday in Wichita Falls, Texas, at the age of 81. We needed another 15 years from this good man.
The easiest way to describe this former pastor and longtime president of our New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary is that he was larger than life. Everything he did, he did in a big way. He laughed big, believed big, loved big, and dreamed big.
In one way, it makes little sense to say he was “one of a kind,” as he hailed from a large family of Leavells who all made deep impressions and had lasting impacts upon the Lord’s work, particularly the Southern Baptist portion. Landrum’s uncle, Dr. Roland Q. Leavell, served as president of the seminary and led in its relocation from the Washington Street campus (near Commander’s Palace restaurant) to the Gentilly Boulevard site. He was succeeded by Leo Eddleman and Grady Cothen, who were in office the two times I graduated from NOBTS. Then, in 1975, the “modern era” of NOBTS arrived when Landrum Leavell II assumed leadership of the seminary.
I had known Dr. Leavell slightly prior to that time. His oldest son, Lan (aka, Landrum Leavell III), was a student at Mississippi College in the early ’70s and sat in the college Sunday School class I taught at the FBC of Jackson. I still recall the moment Lan introduced me to his father. That was 35 years ago, but he left that kind of powerful impression.
In January of ’75, when word got out that Landrum Leavell was the new president of NOBTS, a certain professor who shall remain nameless was in my town–Columbus, Mississippi–leading a Bible study for one of our churches. On Monday morning, when the pastors met, the prof addressed us. Someone asked what he thought about Dr. Leavell as the new president. He said, “Landrum and I were in seminary together. I’ve known him 25 years.” Pause. Then he said, “Those of us who do not have his commanding presence–that magnificent voice or that shock of white hair–have to work at putting twice as much content in our messages to get half the hearing he receives.”
Hmmm. For some reason, I have never forgotten that little back-handed compliment. Sour grapes from the prof? Maybe just a touch.
When I got to know Dr. Leavell–he offered me a job in 1979, I served as national alumni president in the 80s, and pastored in this city from 1990 on–I decided the professor-who-had-known-him-since-seminary was missing something important about this man whom he thought he knew.
The key to Landrum Leavell’s power and the success of his leadership had little to do with his large voice or white hair. What he had was simply a call of God on his life for the work he was doing.
You got the impression that Dr. Leavell settled the directions for the day every morning with the Lord in prayer and the Word, and that thereafter he simply stayed the course. If he was ever bothered by doubt or indecision, I could not tell. In short, he was a leader.
We invite anyone wanting a detailed description of Dr. Leavell’s leadership qualities to visit my website (www.joemckeever.com) and click on the Leadership Series on the right. There are 57 articles there, giving everything I know on the subject and a few things I only heard about. Almost everything there describes Landrum Leavell.
For my money, there are three qualities in particular that distinguished his leadership of our seminary for some 20 years, and several outstanding churches before that.
1) Whether everyone was happy with his decisions was rarely the point. He was not a people-pleaser nor one to live and die by the polls.
I’ve been close friends with a number of professors and staffers at the seminary over the last 30 years, and heard the occasional complaints and gripes. But it’s important to note that these were coming from people whose jobs were secure because their president kept the seminary true to the bedrock principles of Scripture in a time of upheaval within our denomination. This school did not go through the torture of death-and-rebirth some of the other seminaries had to endure. We can thank this leader for that.
2) He saw things that never were and asked why not. That line from a George Bernard Shaw play distinguishes the true leader from the status-quo-analyst who only sees things that are and asks why.
3) He exuded confidence. You wanted to be on Landrum Leavell’s team.
I enjoyed making Dr. Leavell laugh. In the early 1990s when he was laid up after having prostate surgery, I did a cartoon for him that made some play on the words of a well-known hymn. Something about “let angels’ prostate fall.”
One of the last times I saw Dr. Leavell, he and Mrs. Joanne were sitting two rows in front of me in chapel for some kind of post-Katrina service. I pulled out my sketchpad and drew a quick cartoon version of the two of them sitting in chapel. Above his head, the balloon shows that he’s thinking, “I kept telling the trustees, ‘Apres moi, le deluge!'”
I slipped that drawing up to him in the middle of the service (sorry, Dr. Kelley) and smiled to myself as his whole body bobbled up and down with quiet laughter. Then he passed it down the row to friends.
(Note to Mom and Ginger: that “apres moi” business is a quote from one of the French kings–Louis XVI or something–who was predicting disaster after he was off the scene. It translates to “after me, the flood.”)
A word about the relationship of this seminary and our churches. In 1917, this seminary was begun by a vote of the Southern Baptist Convention for the express purpose of bringing the Gospel to the citizens of New Orleans. The Baptist Bible Institute, as it was originally called, is the only one of six SBC seminaries to have gotten its start by a vote of the convention. According to Dr. Chuck Kelley, our current (and outstanding) president, even though the Baptists had been in New Orleans for nearly 100 years, only five SBC churches existed at that time. Today, that number exceeds 100.
Almost all our Baptist churches in metro New Orleans got their start directly or indirectly from students and faculty of the seminary. It is almost a given that, “As the seminary goes, so goes the Lord’s work through Southern Baptists in this city.”
Dr. Leavell’s funeral service was today, Tuesday, at the First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls, where he pastored before coming to the seminary. We sent flowers from the association. Above our name, the card simply reads, “Thank you, dear friend.”