December 29, 2016

LeRoy Leiske, 96, former Southwestern Adventist University president, passes to his rest

Seventh-day Adventist pastor and administrator LeRoy J. Leiske was a man who couldn’t stop improving things, friends and colleagues said when remembering the longtime leader.

Leiske, 96, a former Southwestern Adventist University president who also was president of two church unions and who for seven years headed church-owned Pacific Press, passed to his rest on December 22 in Keene, Texas, where he’d also served as mayor.

Leiske’s improvements ranged from the small, such as noticing a well-worn path on a college campus and installing a paved walkway, to the momentous, such as integrating the faculty and board of trustees of what was then Southern Missionary College, today known as Southern Adventist University.

That move — along with efforts to integrate the Southern Union’s existing conferences — quickly ended Leiske’s first venture as a union president during the turbulent 1960s civil rights period.

Samuel London, Ph.D., a historian who now chairs the history department at Oakwood University in Huntsville, Alabama, recounted the story in his book, “Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement,” published in 2009 by the University of Mississippi Press.

London wrote, “The Southern Union Conference consists of all local and regional conferences within the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Leiske, a white man, was strongly committed to desegregation. When he took office, Leiske told his white constituents that he intended to integrate everything in the Southern Union Conference. White power brokers in the audience who heard this promptly planned their strategy for his removal. Leiske integrated Southern Missionary College and authorized the hiring of nonwhite faculty. He also allowed the black presidents of the regional conferences to become voting members of the institution’s governing board. … After a mere thirteen months on the job, the Southern Union Conference removed Leiske from the presidency.”

In 2011, less than 50 years after Leiske was voted out of the Southern Union presidency, leaders elected Dr. Ron C. Smith, an African-American, as union president. Speaking with Adventist Review, London had praise for Leiske, although the two had never met.

“He was a pioneer when it came to integration within the Seventh-day Adventist Church,” London said. Leiske “took a stand for what I believe is a biblical principle, ‘Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,’ which is the Golden Rule. He stood up for what he believed to be right and for what he believed to be biblical and as a result, he was able to forgive those who voted him out of office. He had a very loving, Christian heart. From the accounts that have been told to me, he seems to have been a sincere, genuine Christian man. He was on the right side of history.”

Being so quickly voted out of office, said Karl Konrad, chemistry professor emeritus at Southwestern Adventist University and a friend of Leiske’s for more than 45 years, might have embittered some, but not Leiske, who later told Konrad, “When I finished my term, I went to all the people that voted against me and told them I would not have any hard feelings.”

After his Southern Union experience, Leiske stepped away from active ministry for a time, becoming successful in several businesses. A telephone call from Southwestern Union president Benjamin E. Leach, Sr., brought Leiske back into full-time ministry, serving some small congregations in the Texas panhandle and neighboring New Mexico. Retired Southwestern Union president Max Trevino, who first got to know Leiske during those years, said the former union president didn’t mind helping to pitch tents in the far north of Texas: “I’m just happy to be working for the Lord,” Trevino recalled Leiske saying.

An enthusiastic emissary of Adventism who, while serving as Home Missionary Secretary in Kansas, arranged for roadside billboards to promote local congregations, Leiske didn’t remain in small congregations for long. He was called to what was then Southwestern Adventist College in 1968 to head up fundraising; his business cards read, “Director of Development and Frequent Beggar.”

The “begging” paid off: “During his time as director of development, Leiske organized the Committee of 100 and directed construction of the cafeteria,” an SWAU remembrance noted. In 1971, Leiske became president of the school, where enrollment had dwindled to 367 students. Finances were precarious, and the conditions on campus, Konrad recalled, were starting to show some wear.

“He was an optimist,” Konrad said. “I once asked him, ‘Were you ever depressed?’ and he replied, ‘Yeah, for about five minutes.’”

That optimism permeated the Southwestern college campus, Konrad noted: “When he became president, everything that didn’t move got painted.” Once, when some new shrubbery was planted around one of the school’s original buildings, North Hall, one of the bushes started to die just before a board of trustees meeting. Lacking time for a new planting, Leiske had the failing plant spray-painted green.

Other capital improvements were more substantial, according to the SWAU announcement: he “oversaw the conversion of the Pultar Pavilion into the Leiske-Pultar Gymnasium. He also designed, fundraised, and took vacation time with his wife to build what is now known as the Callicott Student Park.”

Leiske’s interest in the school extended far beyond the physical plant. “He memorized the ‘look book’ of student pictures, so he could address them by their first name. He liked people and he was very sociable,” Konrad said.

That personal touch paid off for the school: By the end of Leiske’s presidency in 1974, that enrollment had climbed from 367 to 700 students. Southwestern honored Leiske with its Pioneer Award during the 2008 commencement.

Southwestern Adventist University President Ken Shaw, right, visits with former SWAU President LeRoy Leiske in his home in 2014. (Courtesy SWAU)

“I had the privilege to meet with Elder Leiske shortly after becoming president,” Southwestern president Dr. Ken Shaw said in a statement. “It was an honor to meet him and hear his stories. He still had the twinkle in his eye and the warm personality we’ve heard so many alumni recall. We are truly grateful for his dedication to our school.”

Leiske also served as president of the church’s Northern Union, which today is part of the Mid-America Union. From 1977-1983 he was president of Pacific Press Publishing Association, located at the time in Mountain View, California.

In retirement, Leiske returned to the Keene, Texas, area, assisting in the management of a group of nursing homes and, Konrad recalled, once spray painting some shrubbery outside one of the homes, an echo of his earlier “maintenance” at SWAU. He also served as mayor of Keene, Texas, where he worked with state officials to widen Old Betsy Road, the town’s main street.

LeRoy J. Leiske was born July 27, 1920 in Bentley, Alberta, Canada to George and Amelia Unterseher Leiske. He married Sylvia Lockert on June 1, 1943 in Bemidji, Minnesota; together, the couple shared 68 years of marriage before she died in 2012.

Survivors include daughters: Nanci Slease, and Sandra Underhill and husband Jerry; grandchildren: Brett Leiske and wife Crystal, Alexandria “Alex” Hopps and husband, Gary, and Nick Underhill and wife, Briana; great grandchildren, Haley, Kal-El, Ava, and Ashton; numerous nieces, nephews and a host of other relatives and friends. A graveside interment is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday, December 30, 2016 in Keene Memorial Park, with Pastor Carl Johnston officiating.

Johnston, president of Keene-based Seminars Unlimited, came to know Leiske later in the retired leader’s life. But that friendship left a strong impression, he said.

Leiske, “was someone that wouldn’t quit, someone who, when he got sideswiped, would bounce back, always positive,” Johnston said.

Konrad, the retired SWAU professor, agreed: "He died living a full life. There’s only one LeRoy Leiske.”