Alumni Stories

Bill Leverette

By Perry Lentz

Bill Leverette was one of that stellar group of teachers whom Dr Armstrong secured for Indian Springs School during its very first years- that group which included Mr Fleming and Mr Warren and Mr Draper and Mr Doering and Mr Cantey and Mr Cameron, and Mr Peih and Mr Watkins and Mr King. They were so influential in my own life that even after the passage of a half century, I am atill more comfortable calling them by their surnames- and Mr Leverette's influence upon me proved the most dramatic of them all.

Mr Leverette was challenging and convivial, intense and laconic, intelligent and informal, knowledgeable and warm, deep-minded and off-hand. He wore all kinds of sophistication with mild lightness; his intellect made inquiry as natural as breathing; he was curious about life, literature, history, politics-- human nature itself, entirely untrammeled by specifics of intellectual discipline and entirely indifferent about demarcations between them. I still do not know whether he was primarily a teacher of English, or of History. And as such, he and Mac Fleming were excellent embodiments of the "Basic Studies" program then regnant at the Springs. One of the paradoxes of my own life is that I am a professor of English but I myself had only a single year of English- in my senior year, under Mr King - in secondary school. Until Mr King's arrival, we studied history and literature conjointly. For instance Mr Fleming's exposition of classical history to 9th graders was enlivened by reading Lattimore's translation of The Iliad- or perhaps the reverse was the case.

And these things came to the most significant single intellectual experience of my own life in my junior year with Mr Leverette, when he had us read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. The boldness of that choice is even more breath-taking now. Back in the late 'fifties, the shadow of Huey Long's career still loomed. Warren's novel was read, especially in the South, as a fictional exposition of that chapter in American political history. When my father learned that we were reading it, he suggested T Harry Williams' Louisiana Hayride- a good solid work of popular history-- "If you are interested in Huey Long." But Mr Leverette had awakened interests in us callow white boys that far transcended what may have happened in Louisiana politics two decades earlier. The most influential theological passage I've ever read can be located in the last pages Warren's novel. And Mr Leverette's calm, genteelly inflected exposition of the book still dwarfs anything I've ever seen in published scholarship about Warren. Read it for yourself- I recommend it highly, as one of America's profoundest and yet most compelling novels, a wonderful detective story which is also a meditation on morality - and ask, What kind of teacher would offer this to eleventh graders?

Mr Leverette was ginger-haired, freckled, funny, and generous. In those days- from 1956 to 1960- each member of the faculty had his or her own table in the dinning hall, identified by small triangular wooden signs with the name in calligraphy and a dial showing how many places would be required for the faculty member and family. We took all our meals there, and there was no buffet: waiters brought out the food, and the extra portions were raffled off. You were assigned to wait a table at one meal every other week, but otherwise you were free to select any table- a stituation that seemed quite logical to me, until a recent return to the Springs, when a faculty member said that "that must have been devastating, to those whose tables weren't popular." Much of my education took place in that room. At Mr Doering's table, for instance, where French was spoken, I learned that the placement of the French modifier "sacre" can make the word mean either "sacred" or "damned." I can still identify, in my mind's eye, the locations of almost all of the faculty tables. Mr Leverette's table was on the right of the side chamber overlooking the lake, and it wasn't one of the immediately popular ones. He and his wife Pat had two young children, and the competition for the parents' attention was too great for most of us boys. There were no such problems at the tables of the bachelor teachers, such as Mr Fleming or Mr Doering. His accounts of his experiences studying in England- hadn't he been a Marshall Scholar?-- are still with me. So too, his frequent expression that "It not written anywhere that you are supposed to be miserable in life" (on the other hand, and about as often, he would also say "It isn't written anywhere that you are supposed to be happy in life").

He had a cool yet warm presence: perfectly pitched for us boarding students who were entering the throes of pubescence and (very) early maturity-- which in some ways was true of the nation itself. We, and it, were curiously poised. I learned of Sputnik at Mr Fleming's table one evening in my first year. The desegregation of the schools in Little Rock happened at the same time, and Martin Luther King Jr was a young minister up in Birmingham. In my senior year, Bear Bryant returned to Alabama. In All the King's Men, the arch-politician Willie Stark confronts Jack Burden with the harsh truth that human nature is basically evil- that a politician has to work with evil, because "'that is all there is,'" out of which to make "'good.'" "What," one of us asked Mr Leverette, "is the answer, then? How can you do good, in politics?" "You tell me," he said, "and we'll both become rich and famous." That the most significant answers aren't finally the ones you can verbalize- that, along with much else, I learned from him. But that doesn't mean that you aren't responsible for, as Faulkner said, trying to "fumble-heed" those answers. Quite the opposite: that is the burden of your humanity. Mr Leverette taught me that-- and taught me Faulkner, too. And ever sense reading All the King's Men, literature has seemed to me to be the most fascinating way the human race has ever devised, for studying and engaging with reality. My study with Mr Leverette, at his dinner table overlooking the lake and in his classroom just below the library, inexorably informed my choice of both college (Kenyon) and career.

This has been about me more than about Bill Leverette, but that is because he was one of the most brilliant teachers I've ever encountered. So it's his fault, that my memory of him recalls more of the shape and substance of my own life, and of the school where we both were resident, than of his life. We both left ISS in 1960- I graduated, and Mr Leverette left for a career in higher education. I will never forget one brilliant early summer evening, with the wind in the trees (back then ISS was much greener, a blue-green world, and much more isolated). A group of us stood in the parking lot in front of the field house- the old quonset-shaped one. A recent graduate was visiting after his first year at college, and Mr Leverette came by: his house was on the nearby faculty circle. "Why," the young man asked him, "why do you want to leave this place, to go to a university?" "I don't know," he said, in that thoughtful way of his- he was one of those people who was always willing to let others see him thinking things over, rather than always trying to prove that he had the world under confident command. "I don't know. It is heaven here, isn't it?"

Thirty years after my own departure from that realm, I was in correspondence with Mr Leverette again. He sent me short stories which he aspired to assemble into a volume. I found them- especially the title story- to be absolutely wonderful. Shooting the Limit: I recommend the book, wherein one measure at least of this extraordinary man can be taken.

Perry Lentz