43 Years: Dr. James Leeper

August 7, 2020

By Kaylin Bowen

There is one lesson that life can teach no matter a person’s circumstance, opportunity, natural ability or twist of fortune. It lends itself to doctors, lawyers, teachers and chefs. It can be learned by young or old. It knows no gender or race, no social status nor family name.

“The best advice I can give is be flexible,” said Dr. Jim Leeper. “Look for every opportunity and be open to new things. You might think you know where you’re going, but you need to be ready to switch tracks.”

Flexibility is the tenant by which Leeper, professor of community medicine and population health at The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences, has lived his life. A first-generation college graduate, born in Iowa to a homemaker and a meat processing plant worker, Leeper originally thought he would become a high school math teacher.

At the University of Iowa, Leeper completed a Bachelor of Science Degree in physics and astronomy before starting a graduate degree in astrophysics at the University of Indiana. “I’ve always had a fascination with space,” Leeper said. Even now, Leeper’s office is plastered with images of the cosmos. “When the Mars Rover began sending back images, I would look at the new images sent back every morning. It’s how I would start my day.”

Leeper was drafted to serve during the Vietnam War in 1968, after one year into his graduate courses. He served four years in the United States Air Force, working in remote outposts but was not stationed in Vietnam. During his service, he worked under a captain who was a statistics specialist.

After four years away from academia, Leeper re-evaluated his goals and interests when he was discharged from the military. He chose to return to the University of Iowa to complete a graduate degree program in biostatistics. It was complete chance that his program lacked an open spot for a research assistantship, so he chose to work his hours at the university’s medical school.

“I had no intention of doing what I ended up doing,” Leeper said. “I started working there to pay for school and I loved the application of statistics to medicine.” After graduation, he accepted a job to work in Chicago, but then The University of Alabama called offering him an academic position. He politely declined the offer in Chicago and moved to Tuscaloosa.

For 43 years, Leeper has worked at The University of Alabama. He has been on UA committees for 236 doctoral dissertations and has seen the College of Community Health Sciences grow from 20 faculty to 77 faculty. He has watched University Medical Center, operated by CCHS, move from operating out of trailers to its current 70,000-plus-square-foot facility. He’s witnessed the creation and evolution of the Rural Health Leaders Pipeline, a series of programs to recruit, educate and train rural Alabama students interested in becoming physicians and other health-care professionals in the state’s rural communities.

“Dr. Leeper is the consummate community medicine professional,” said Dr. John Wheat, professor of family, internal, and rural medicine at CCHS. “When I was a new assistant professor in his department, he said, ‘John, you have good ideas about rural medicine, but before activating them go talk with several doctors, nurses, farmers, hospital administrators, business leaders and your own family in rural Alabama.’ It made all the difference between a comfortable academic career and becoming part of rural Alabama’s movement toward modern health and opportunities,” Wheat said.

Leeper has held many leadership positions within the College and in the academic community. He was director of the CCHS Research Consulting Laboratory and continued that role as it transitioned into the Health Research Consulting Service. Today, that entity is the College’s Institute for Rural Health Research, which focuses on research to improve health care in rural communities and last year was awarded more than $4 million in grant funding. Leeper served as chair of the Department of Behavioral and Community Medicine, later renamed the Department of Community and Rural Medicine, for 15 years. His curriculum vitae spans 24 pages and includes more awards, honors, publications and accolades than can be summarized in a single article. He was instrumental in hiring many legends of the College, has taught thousands of students, and acted as the calm and level keeper of knowledge.

“Dr. Leeper has been part of the glue that has held our department and this College together for many years and has led many a charge against those that did not see the value in either a (medical school) branch campus or a department that saw the community as a patient,” said Dr. John C. Higginbotham, professor and chair of the CCHS Department of Community Medicine and Population Health (formerly the Department of Community and Rural Medicine), and director of the Institute for Rural Health Research. Higginbotham is also senior associate vice president for Research and Economic Development for UA.

“He has been a staunch advocate for the knowledge, skills and experience that communities bring to medical education,” Higginbotham said. “But far and away the thing that Jim has done best for our College is to care for the students, and he has done this tirelessly.”

Leeper hired both Higginbotham and Wheat during his time as department chair. He said they were two of the excellent candidates he has been able to introduce to the College.

Dr Jim Leeper

While Leeper was working to become a respected and valued member of the College, he was also starting his family.

He met his wife, Chong-hwa Chen, or Catherine as she refers to herself in the U.S., while he was working on his biostatistics doctorate. Leeper noticed her in a fall lecture course, but they didn’t really start talking until they had a smaller course together. He sat next to her in class and carried her books for her after class.

They both began work at the medical school in biostatistics, and when she moved to Atlanta to attend Emory University, he drove down to see her frequently. They were married in 1978, a year after Leeper began working at UA.

After completing her doctorate, Catherine worked at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, teaching math and statistics for 10 years. Their shared passion for education and statistics is part of why they make an excellent match, Leeper said.

They have two daughters, Evonne and Connie. The Leepers instilled a deep appreciation for academia in their daughters. Evonne received a doctorate in genetics from Stanford University. Connie earned her medical degree from the University of Alabama School of Medicine, as well as a Master of Public Health Degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She completed residency training at the Ventura Family Medicine Residency in Ventura, California, where she served as chief resident, and she also completed an obstetrics fellowship.

Connie now serves as a family medicine and obstetrics physician at University Medical Center, which the College operates, and as faculty in the College’s Department of Family, Internal, and Rural Medicine. She is also assistant director of The University of Alabama Tuscaloosa Family Medicine Residency Program, which is also operated by the College.

“I am incredibly proud of them both,” Jim Leeper said. “They’re, of course, my greatest accomplishment.”

In retirement, Leeper plans to spend a lot of time with his granddaughter, Phoenix, working in his yard and learning to play the guitar. He plans to remain active with the College and wants to continue educating the next generation of doctors and biostatisticians.

Leeper said he has always been drawn to young people and their never-ending pursuit of their ambitions. There are so many options and opportunities for students, Leeper said, even those who can’t yet see the full breadth of them. It is the job of their advisors and teachers to help them see those opportunities, he said.

“Counseling for students to find their balance, to always have that plan B, is high priority for me,” Leeper said. “I know from my own life – you don’t always know where life is going to take you.”

“I dedicated myself to service for the College, doing all that was asked of me,” Leeper said. “I’ve always liked to work in the background, keeping the production rolling.”

After more than four decades of dedicated service to keeping the show running smoothly at CCHS, Leeper retired from his position as director of Education and Evaluation for the College’s Rural Programs on June 1. He plans to remain as a professor emeritus to finish his last nine dissertation committee obligations and continue to assist Rural Programs.

“We are proud of Dr. Leeper and the legacy he is leaving,” said Dr. Richard Friend, dean of CCHS.

Added Wheat: “He is a wonderful mentor and colleague whose influence will live on through the many students, colleagues and communities that have benefitted by engaging with him.”