Looking Back: Leo Pickens (A78), Longtime Athletic Director and Administrator, Retires
December 6, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin
“I came here as a prospective student, and attending my first seminar, I thought ‘Oh, I’ve come home,’” says Leo Pickens (A78).
Pickens graduated from St. John’s College after three years in Annapolis and his junior year in Santa Fe, left for a decade to pursue commercial banking in Baltimore, and then returned to the Annapolis campus as the director of athletics—where he stayed for nearly 24 years. But he wasn’t done yet. After leaving the athletic director position, he served as director of alumni relations at the college for more than four years before becoming the director of leadership annual gifts. And now, after nearly 31 years, he’s finally hanging up his St. John’s hat—at least in a professional capacity.
‘Mr. Pickens,’or ‘LP,’ as he’s often called, will retire at the end of 2018. While Pickens is leaving Annapolis, St. John’s will always be his home.
“My favorite classes in high school were conversation-based,” says Pickens. “I just loved that approach to learning. I was always a big reader. I loved reading big, hard books and was also prone to being very serious and really pondering life’s big questions. My junior year in high school, our English teacher had us read How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler, and it referenced St. John’s College. It seemed like it could be a good fit because it combined reading good books, asking serious questions, and engaging in those activities in conversation.”
He enrolled in 1974, engaging with the athletic program under then-director Bryce Jacobson, whom he called a “mentor.”
“I thought Bryce had the best job in the world, and thought ideally I’d like to grow up to be Bryce,” he recalls. “Luckily enough that turned out—not that I would ever compare myself with Bryce, because he was extraordinary.”
Pickens recalls that he was drafted into the intramural team of the Druids, “absolutely the greatest sports franchise in human history,” and played “everything.” Off the field, he loved waltz parties and running—calling running to the top of Atalaya Mountain during his junior year on the Santa Fe campus one of his peak undergraduate experiences.
Academically, he was most enthralled by his language tutorials.
“I think my best class was my sophomore class with Mr. Raditsa. I loved close translation of poetry that deepened critical reading. The translation of Antigone sophomore year and Moliere’s Tartuffe were the highlights of my academic career. I have the memory of a really cohesive, tight, hard-working class. Our sophomore language class was the St. John’s class at its best.”
He wrote his senior essay on War and Peace and Tolstoy’s exploration of the meaning of life, which he says was “really an exploration of trying to come to grips with that question.”
The name of his essay? “Lions: Leo on Leo: An Inquiry into Spiritual Peace in Tolstoy’s War and Peace.”
The Athletic Director
While Pickens says he wasn’t actively hoping to one day become St. John’s athletic director, the thought was always in the back of his mind. He came back to campus frequently and remained active in intramural sports, but when the job opened up, he jumped at the opportunity.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind job and there’s no way to wait for that,” he says, “just go with your life and see what happens. But as it turns out, my work as a commercial banker was great preparation for being an administrator of the athletic program in terms of management skills (strategic planning, supervisory, working collaboratively across departments), administrative skills (the nuts and bolts of running a department), and the habit of working hard to keep my customers happy.”
Jacobson’s were big shoes to fill—the former athletic director is often credited for making the St. John’s athletic program what it is today. But while Pickens wanted to keep the spirit of the program alive, his goal was not to simply continue the work Jacobson had done.
“Mr. Pickens was a perfect successor to Bryce Jacobson,” says Christopher Nelson (SF70), former president of the Annapolis campus. “He continued all of the virtues of the program with a sense of humor, but a sense that competition was very important.”
(Fun fact: During his tenure as athletic director, Pickens joined Nelson and a few other friends and St. John’s employees on a massive bike trip from the Santa Fe campus to the Annapolis one.)
“For lack of a better way of putting it, it’s just a big tent. There’s an attitude that everyone’s welcomed inside, but I wanted to make it welcoming and at the same time keep it focused and competitive,” Pickens says. “I wanted to make it fun and appeal to not only the dyed-in-the-wool athletes, but to those that perhaps hadn’t played before—to say, ‘Come out and give it a go.’”
“The beautiful thing is when you provide that welcoming atmosphere, people come out and play and they discover that there is this athlete within. I wanted to carry on this great tradition that we have, which in many ways mirrors what’s happening in the classroom. You want everybody to participate and do it ideally for the love of learning in and of itself. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are. The play, as we like to say, is for its own sake.”
Current athletics and recreation coordinator Chris Krueger (A07) began as a Greenwave under Pickens. He had not played sports in high school, but quickly found himself at home in the sports program.
“There was just an understanding that we were going to have a ton of fun, but we were also going to be competing with great intensity,” he remembers. “It was fun, it was hard, but it was a welcoming sort of work.”
His standout memories of Pickens, however, took place off the field. He remembers Pickens allowing students to bring their senior papers down to the boathouse on a Saturday morning and listening to them read them aloud, and talk about it. Then, there was the moment when Krueger almost left St. John’s sports.
“My basketball team when I was a captain was very small in terms of number and in physical size,” he says. “And though I’m not very tall, I was frequently down low in the paint and getting all the elbows. I always came away with some bumps and bruises. I remember one day I went into his office and he invited me to sit in a chair that’s still in the same spot, and I said ‘Leo, it’s got to stop. I can’t keep getting these elbows in the face. I’m going to quit.
“At this point, the Greenwaves didn't have many seniors coming out, as far as I can recall. But he just looked me in the eyes and said, ‘That’s a decision you’re going to have to make.’ And that was the end of the conversation. I don’t know if he knew I wasn’t going to quit or he just didn’t care either way. It says something about the way he ran the program, that he just had this understanding. I didn’t quit, but the program was healthy enough to deal with someone deciding not to keep playing. He let me make that choice, and I think that’s the best. He was willing to let me quit and not interrupt my own agency.”
Though he remained involved with the athletic program as the crew coach, Pickens left his position as director in 2012.
“I think I was getting a little long in the tooth as athletic director,” he says. “I think the job demands youthful legs, and I was eager to take on some new challenges. The job of director of alumni relations opened up and it seemed like, given all the relationships I’d developed over the previous 24 years, not to mention my own time in school, I could use that as a way to better the college.”
Tia Pausic (A86), president of the Alumni Association, says Pickens was perfect for the job.
“Leo made it possible for many of us, myself included, to become active alumni. He accomplished that mission in a quiet, but effective way: the art of the nudge,” she says. “He carefully stewarded volunteers to help strengthen the Alumni Association and its activities, encouraged innovation and like a good coach, was always there with words of encouragement for a job well done.”
He remained in the alumni office for several years before transitioning into fundraising, which was appealing to him for its concrete results.
“I was always encouraging the athletes that I work with to break out of their comfort zones and try something new, so I think it was just an appetite for that,” he says.
Susan Borden (A87) remembers when he first came on board in the Development office.
“I had always felt that the gym was his natural habitat, that he had raised the bar of running the [athletics program] to a certain kind of beauty and perfection. I thought that was a perfect match of a mission and an environment and a man, but when he came out of [athletics], he brought those qualities with him. I saw him take the competitiveness that was appropriate to athletics and use it in his work to bring the best experience to our alumni and share his love of the college with our donors. He opened up an enthusiasm for supporting the college.”
“Another thing is his ability to connect,” she adds. “I think that’s an intrinsic part of sports, but it’s such an important part of alumni relations and fundraising. His absence will be felt throughout Annapolis. The college is losing someone who doesn’t just offer support, but offers love. He loves the people here. He loves the mission of the college. We’ll be losing a colleague who could not only make us happy to be here on a day-to-day level, but could always bring us back to the fundamental reason why we’re here.”
In his retirement, Pickens will be joining his wife, Valerie Pawlewicz (A89), in New York in the Adirondacks. There, he’ll take up many of the domestic duties and “spend more time doing what Johnnies live to do, which is reading.” He plans to return to Remembrance of Things Past and The Tale of Genji, as well as one of the quintessential St. John’s texts: “It’s going to sound funny, but I haven’t read The Republic since the fall of 1974.”
“Henry David Thoreau is one of my heroes, and he somehow managed to go walking in the woods for several hours every day,” he adds. “I would like to do that. The region we’re moving into has these beautiful mountainous spaces I would just love to explore.”
That’s not to say, however, that he won’t miss being on campus. At the same time, Pickens says he will always remain part of the community.
“We have a very tight, highly collaborative and radically democratic community, and I will miss my great friends, my colleagues on the faculty and staff,” he says. “The fundamental mission is something that I wholeheartedly believe in, which is the liberation and the strengthening of the human heart and intellect. That is a great mission. That’s part of that radical democratic spirit that we embrace. That resonates with everybody, and I’ve always loved the fact that my voice mattered here. I was heard. I was on a first name basis with people, whether it was my colleagues in the communications office or a tutor or the dean or the president—the doors are open. I felt like I could really have an impact.”