Goodbye, James | Goodbye, Franklin

Jim Leisy,
New York 2005
I've written memorials here before. When you're in the biz you have your favorites, you know—people you would like to pay tribute to because they hung on to their integrity while much of the industry would abandon values in favor of an instant buck.

But now I have to write in memory of someone I would so much rather not write up. It's completely loathsome, to be honest. Not that he does not deserve it, don't get me wrong: it's not the person part, it's the "in memory of" part.

William, James & Company was founded as an imprint of Franklin, Beedle & Associates Inc. Both bear the name of their founder, James Franklin Leisy, Jr. The joke in naming William, James & Company was that the imprint was meant to handle English language reference and philosophy, and the founders (Bill Hoffman and Jim Leisy) could contribute the long forms of their first names to play on the great American writer/philosopher William James.

Today we are saying goodbye to the James of William, James and the Franklin of Franklin, Beedle. On his way in to work in Portland Wednesday of this week, Jim suffered a fatal heart attack, and so it was that we in the office had already seen Jim for the final time two days before. If the word were not so overused I'd call things around here "surreal"; I'll opt for "weird" instead.

For myself, I came to work at Franklin, Beedle in late 1992. That company, focused on computer science textbooks for the college market, thrived until a bit after the dot-com bust of the late-90s. It became apparent that it would be wise at that point to diversify a bit, and so Bill Hoffman came over from another publisher to help us start the William, James & Company imprint. The general economy was to go sour just then, as Jim and Bill had agreed to founding the imprint on September 10, 2001. Bill felt he needed to leave at that point to seek stability as an editor for an established press. And so it was that Jim became the publisher of two publishing imprints—one academic and one trade.

But I've always known Jim to be much more than the guy running the company. He had far-reaching interests, and that always made it possible to pick up just about any conversation thread. He had two main interests outside of publishing: photography and guitar. But really he could find himself enthralled by just about anything.

What follows are some random sketches of memories I have of Jim, especially of working together with him all these years. Those who knew Jim will recognize some of this.
  • Ping-pong. When I arrived at Franklin, Beedle in the early-90s, the revolution in the workplace was in full swing, and at FBA that meant there was a full-sized ping-pong table in the center of the office. Lots of space surrounding the table meant the games often became something more than casual. But on late Friday afternoon there was often time for beer pong, as taught to us by an actual fraternity member and graduate of Cal Berkeley. All of this tomfoolery among us editors and salespeople and order processors was endorsed by (and often joined-in-on by) Jim, who resisted stodginess outright at Franklin, Beedle.
  • Social gathering. Was there an occasion to celebrate? An author in town on a visit? A pivotal announcement? These were often marked by Jim-led dinners and lunches, often at some top-of-the-line restaurant or hotel. There was no such thing as business without pleasure (and often vice-versa) with Jim.
  • Music. Jim was a music-on-in-the-background worker by nature. A bit of a jazz-head, he was extra fond of Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Michael Hedges. For popular music he, like everyone else his age, had a strong Beatles inclination, but he and I really bonded over Steely Dan. The last thing he lent me was his copy of Donald Fagan's Eminent Hipsters, which I returned to him on Monday, the last time I saw him. We had a thoroughly energetic and engaged conversation about the Boswell Sisters and a history of jazz clubs in the Village.
  • Gadgets. Oh, man, did Jim love gadgets. Part of it may have sprung from his love of guitars and guitar amps, and part of it may have been from his love of photography and his near-encyclopedic understanding of cameras and lenses. But whatever—he was extremely fond of all manner of electronics. For a long time he held on to the idea that he would establish or endow a computer museum with his collection of old computers. He held on to ancient hardware, he said, for that purpose. Really, though, I think he just thought that stuff was cool, and he could always remember how cool it all was when it was new, such as his Apple II and his Commodore 64. The last time I saw Jim he had just been given an Arduino that he was eager to check out and start putting together.
  • Photography. This is such a huge topic, and there is no way I can do it justice when it comes to Jim. He had talent for it, to be sure (I am especially fond of his Amateur Physics series), and there was also his work on the Photo Council for the Portland Art Museum, but my personal favorite story was about the time he butted heads with the Photo Council about bringing in Police-guitarist Andy Summers to give a talk about his photography, which had recently been collected and published by a Portland publisher, Nazraeli Press. Jim had had success bringing David Byrne to town to lecture—a big money-raiser for the council—and thought Andy Summers could draw a similar crowd. The Photo Council rejected it as a bit of grandstanding, though, and it was up to Jim to pass the bad news along to Andy. And so it was that one otherwise-quiet afternoon at the office I picked up the phone to hear a British accent on the other end asking for Jim. "Can I tell him who's calling?" I asked, but knowing full well what would come next (I just wanted to hear it): "Sure. It's Andy Summers."
  • Cars and bikes: Know about a car? A bike? Guess what—Jim knew about it, too! And probably what years it was made and when significant engine and body changes came in. As with cameras and guitars, Jim's knowledge was fairly encyclopedic. I spent many hours talking cars and bikes with Jim, though I have to confess I added zero information to any of it. That was another quality Jim had, though: exceptionally tolerant of uninformed opinion for the sake of moving the conversation forward.
  • Guitars, drums, musical instruments: In the leanest years of our publishing days together, Jim and I shared a 7000 square-foot office and warehouse space, just the two of us. That was when the ping-pong table came down and Jim decided to set up a place to play music. He brought in the pieces of the drum kit he was assembling, several of his guitars, a bass, a mic and stand, and some amps. There was a ukulele in there somewhere, too. This was to be our new recreational activity. We got into this habit of talking through a topic that had come up doing with the business, then reach a natural pause. At this point we'd look at one another knowingly and wander to the instruments, flip some switches, and crank out a tune or two. We settled in to Jim was the drummer, and I was the singer/guitar player. The fact is that Jim's guitar playing would have been so much better, but we had to face the fact that my drumming was untenable, even for a really crummy spontaneous jam on some rock standard. The last time I saw Jim play guitar was when he brought out his Lowden at his Christmas party last year to do something he had said he wanted to do for quite a while: Play tunes to accompany my son (unlike me, a musician who could hold his own with Jim) on fiddle. I won't forget the joy of watching those two work the room. Earlier this month Jim had acquired a 1960 Guild hollow body that he was very excited about but in the end only got to play a few days.

There are so many other memories I have of Jim, but mainly I just want to say that working for and with Jim on so many book projects and with so many other people has had this huge, gigantic impact on my life. He showed me a lot of things along the way, but the only thought I'm having right this minute is that I did not learn enough, there was still so much more for us to be doing together.

One word I'll carry with me about Jim, one word that will resonate and sum up my thinking: Creativity.


Anonymous said...

As an author who had previously worked with several business-like big city publishers, I was struck by Jim's warmth and the inviting feeling he'd created at the office. There were always welcoming smiles, coffee and sweets; meeting with Jim and Tom was more pleasure than work.
I enjoyed running into Jim at Chamber Music Northwest where he photographed the musicians. And I loved the way he shot the cover of my book and made it look so elegant.
I feel lucky to have known him and terribly sorry to learn that he's gone.

Barbara Blossom

ian shadburne said...

I am so bummed. ):

much love, ian

Unknown said...

Thank you Tom.

Dean Lake said...

Those ping pong matches are a nice memory. That table was the center for the important stuff - sport, food, and meetings.

Jim made friends easier than anyone I've ever known. Working with him at publishing trade shows, I was in awe of how many people knew him and wanted to hang out with him. As you mention, Jim had far-reaching interests, which coupled with a child-like inquisitiveness made him approachable and a magnet for anyone seeking a captivating conversation.

It was a privilege to know Jim and to learn from him. He doesn't leave a hole for us, but a fully-stocked well.


brucedickson said...

Well said Tom.


Unknown said...

A couple of days ago I received an email from my younger sister with only a rumor among a circle of old college friends about Jim's fatal attack. Forty-two years ago, that same sister contacted me with a memo of introduction for a young James Leisy she'd recently known as a student at Bethel College. I had been pulling together a team of young graphic designers, photographers, editors and typographers, then cross-training all to be able to fill in for any position in that relatively new Marketing Production Dept at The University of Chicago Press. James, more than most that I brought into our unique group of two dozen team members, fit perfectly the mold of potential polymath we sought to develop.

Over the past forty years, Jim's and my paths have crossed barely a half dozen times, but I always found him to be a repository of the same eclectic enthusiasm that Tom has herewith memorialized.

James, your old world will see, hear and feel less well in your absence.

Christopher Matthews said...

A great guy. I knew Jim back in the Wadsworth days. We were the same age and loved the business. He was a great guy and a gentleman. You've done a nice job with this memorial. Thanks. Peace, Jim.
—Jeremy Soldevilla

Carolyn said...

Thank you for this perfectly summarized tribute to Jim. I was a new friend but felt like I knew him for a lifetime. He made people feel that way.


Baron Barnett said...

I got to know Jim as a cofounder of the photography
council at the Portland Art Museum. These comments were spot on!! He was so interactive, creative and full of enthusiasm……so bright.
I was lucky to know him for 10+ years and realize there will be a huge void with his passing. At the same time I feel blessed that his path crossed mine
and shared so many memorable moments.
Will miss you Jim but thank you!!

Baron Barnett

McLeod said...

Tom is my father. All my life Jim has been a presence. I've considered him a friend of both my dad and myself. It feels weird to not have him around, and since I'm away at college it hasn't really registered yet.

Every time I was around Jim he was attentive to everyone. He was always very kind to me, even paying me for helping William, James, and Co. out in their warehouses and at Wordstock. He took intense interest in what I had to say; he was someone who you knew was always fully present in whatever room/conversation he was in. And I won't forget what it was like to jam with him at that Christmas party. He was brilliant and enthusiastic and everything that he did.

You will be missed, Jim Leisy.

Sue Page said...

I went to work for Jim in 1995. The first thing I saw when walking into the office for my interview was the ping pong table; I knew right then that I had to work there. Jim actively encouraged the playing of ping pong (and hacky sack), as much as he encouraged hard work.

Yes, Jim was indeed a gadget guy. Miles of cables snaked through walls, and packages of unopened computer equipment piled up on any available surface, but hey, we were a computer science publisher, isn’t this typical? His familiar response to non-working networks “did you check the cabling” sticks with me today as I find myself asking co-workers the same thing!

Though as much as Jim was a gadget guy, he could also be a ‘no frills’ guy when it came to work. When the computers went down and we salespeople grumbled about not being able to access the sales database, Jim often responded by saying “all you need is a pad of paper, a pencil and a phone” And you know, it’s true, even though we didn’t believe it at the time. Jim was all about making connections with people, and the best way to make a connection was the phone – actually talking with a person!

Working for and with Jim was a unique experience. He very much embraced jumping into a project or task (much to the consternation of the uber-planners among us!) and seeing where it ended up. Reflecting back upon my 7 years at FBA has brought up so many memories – good and not so good – but all of them resulted in learning something new. Jim seemed to always see the possibilities in things, a trait not found in most people. I will remember him for this, and many other things, and my condolences go out to his family. Here’s to the great beyond and all its possibities, Jim!

Chris Allsman said...

I met Jim once at the offices of Harcourt Brace where I was working at the time. He was forthright and intelligent and made it a pleasure to trade wit. His father was a mentor to my father at Wadsworth and I could tell he was a chip off the old block. A deep loss to education. With warmest condolences ...