It is a quiet morning at Samford Hall on the Auburn University campus, as Dr. Steven Leath and his wife, Janet, settle into the bright orange sofa in the president’s office. With sunlight streaming through the windows, the Leaths reflect on being at Auburn and how their holidays are changing this year with their two sons. New family traditions surround the Iron Bowl and hopes of attending a bowl game after Christmas.
Leath became president of Auburn University in June, after serving over five years as president at Iowa State University. “We loved it there and were not looking to leave,” says Leath, “until the president’s position at Auburn opened after Dr. Jay Gogue announced his retirement.
“It was a once in a lifetime opportunity at Auburn to return to the South and be near our families,” he adds. “We were excited. I knew it was a beautiful campus, and we both thought Auburn was a special place.”
Leath was born in Providence, R.I., where his father was stationed in the Navy. When he was 2 years old, the family moved to St. Paul, Minn. He spent childhood summers enjoying outdoor activities with siblings, as well as spending time in greenhouses and field plots with his father, who was studying agriculture science.
“Sometimes Dad would take us to his field plots where he was studying diseases in plants,” says Leath. “We got to stay up late and play, so we always thought it was neat to go to the research plot. That is probably what started my interest in agriculture sciences because I would go to the lab and the fields with him.”
At 12 years of age, his family moved when his father accepted a faculty position at Pennsylvania State University. After graduating from high school, Leath attended Penn State.
Since Leath was interested in agriculture and science, he molded the two into agriculture science research. After graduating from Penn State, he attended graduate school at the University of Delaware. “I not only got a degree,” he says, “more importantly, I got a wife.”
Janet was a college student while he was in graduate school.
Born in Yonkers, N.Y., Janet was 9 months old when her family moved to the south shore of Long Island, as her parents didn’t want Janet and her siblings to grow up in the city. Her father took the train two hours each way to work in Manhattan. While Janet didn’t appreciate it then, she later realized the sacrifices her father made for their family.
Janet spent most of her childhood and teenage summers at the beach. “It was a wonderful place to grow up,” she remembers. “There was an arboretum where I enjoyed going as a teenager. I think that is what spurred my interest in plants.”
While she graduated from high school at age 16, Janet felt she was not ready for college. She met a young woman who worked as an assistant trainer at a horse farm in Maryland. Janet had always admired horses, though she wasn’t around them growing up.
She got a job at the farm working with racehorses and moved to Maryland. She mucked stalls, walked and groomed horses.
“At one point we were short on riders and needed another one,” she says. “I volunteered. I learned how to ride on two-year-old thoroughbred race horses and loved it.”
On one trip back to New York to visit her family, she suddenly realized four years had passed. “I always intended to go to college,” she says. “My parents had said ‘when you go’ not ‘if you go.’”
She decided to start college the next semester. She no longer considered herself a New Yorker. Since she was a resident of Maryland at the time, Janet enrolled at the University of Maryland, but being there didn’t feel right.
She decided to attend the University of Delaware instead. Janet first majored in business and then switched to plant science. “It harkens back to loving spending time at the arboretum,” she says. “Plants are my passion.”
Janet met her future husband at college while he was teaching an introductory plant pathology lab. They graduated, married in 1981, and moved to Illinois, where they lived for four years while Leath was getting his Ph.D.
Leath began his academic career at the University of Illinois as a plant pathologist like this father.
“When I graduated,” says Leath, “we had some opportunities around the country. The one that seemed to fit both of us was at NC State in Raleigh, N.C.”
Later, at the University of North Carolina, Leath became vice president of research and sponsored programs at the 16 campuses.
The Leaths purchased a farm and planted Fraser Firs in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwestern corner of the state. A few years later, they built a cabin there where they enjoyed spending Thanksgiving with their two sons, Eric and Scott.
The boys helped their father during harvest time at the tree farm. When they finished harvesting, the sons worked for other farmers during Thanksgiving week. “It was a hectic time,” recalls Leath, “but I am thankful today that we had that special time together.”
“It was something to look forward to,” adds Janet. “We knew every year we would spend Thanksgiving at the cabin. Sometimes my family or Steve’s family would come. We really enjoyed it with a big fire in the fireplace.”
While both sons cook now, Eric had an interest cooking at an early age and would help his mother in the kitchen. For Thanksgiving they prepared a big turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and sweet potato casserole.
Eric, who still lives in Raleigh, works in commercial real estate, while Scott is an accountant in Washington, D.C. Both sons are coming to Auburn for Thanksgiving.
“This year we are starting a new family tradition for Thanksgiving because of the Iron Bowl,” says Leath. Janet is expecting both sons to help her prepare the Thanksgiving dinner. They will enjoy Thanksgiving together and then attend the Iron Bowl.
Christmas will be different this year as well. When their sons were growing up, they all went to pick the perfect tree to decorate. The boys would be allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve. Their dogs always had a gift too.
On Christmas morning, Janet would bake a breakfast casserole to savor while gifts were opened.
This year they will go to the cabin. Eric and Scott will help prepare Christmas dinner with roast beef as the entree and bake pies.
Another family tradition is picking wild grapes each fall in the mountains for making a special grape juice. Boiling water is poured over the sweetened grapes and placed in a hot water bath to create the rosy colored juice.
After Christmas, the Leaths are hoping to attend a bowl game with their sons.
As the New Year starts, the Leaths are looking forward to moving into the renovated president’s home in early February. They have felt fortunate to be able to select wall colors in the private quarters.
While they are in temporary housing, they feel they have been welcomed into the Auburn community with Southern hospitality. A neighbor brought them a pound cake soon after moving in.
“We are delighted to be in Auburn, “says Leath. “Everybody has been welcoming and kind.”
“It feels so right,” adds Janet, “like we are supposed to be here.”
She is enjoying walking their two dogs, Dixie and Quill, at Kiesel Park and around campus. Four years ago Dixie had to have her left rear leg amputated.
“We have a three-legged dog, who is a sweetheart, and an 8 and half year old lab,” says Janet. “Students love it when we walk across campus.
“We feel it is an Auburn family here,” she says. “We consider this an honor and privilege to be here. We will work as hard as we can with the community and university to move forward on shared goals of the Auburn family.”
“It is clear the trustees and faculty want Auburn to have a greater research and scholarship presence,” says Leath. “We want to positively affect the quality of life in Alabama and the world to make a difference.”
An award winning journalist, Ann Cipperly has been writing features, as well as food, travel and restaurant articles for East Alabama Living since 2004. She is a former newspaper lifestyle and food editor and currently writes features and a food column for the Opelika Observer. Ann is a native Opelikan.