Professor R. Leon Fitts
LEON FITTS arrived at Dickinson as an assistant professor of Classical Studies in 1972 and retires in 2008 as the Asbury J. Clark Professor of Classical Studies. His new home is Augusta, Georgia, where Mary, his wife of 45 years, grew up and where they have chosen to retire. Leon is perhaps best known to most faculty as Marshal of the College, the jovial yet dignified juggernaut at the front of the pack for the last twenty-three years of his Dickinson career. (link to Dickinson Magazine Article)
Greek historian by training, Roman archaeologist by vocation
Leon graduated from Baylor University, then the University of Georgia, and finally Ohio State, where he received the PhD in 1971 with a thesis on “The Political Attacks on Pericles’ Friends.” Shortly after arriving at Dickinson, however, he did what few in this allegedly interdisciplinary day would venture to do at that stage of career, he retrained himself for a quite different scholarly specialty, Roman archaeology.
In this field he has published a series of important articles and reports dealing with the Romano-British sites of Stanwick, Rockcastle, Melsonby, Traprain Law, as well as the fundamental book on the British tribe the Brigantes and their relations with the Romans, published with Brian Hartley in 1988. Beginning in 1976 he directed, in collaboration with British colleagues, excavations at the sites just mentioned and others, with such distinction that he received in 1996 the extremely rare honor for an American scholar of being elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He was also inducted into the Scottish equivalent in 2004. His teaching and mentoring of students has been recognized by the Ganoe Award for inspirational teaching, which he received in 1977, as well as by his being made godfather to many of his ex-students’ children.
The record of scholarship, teaching, and service to the college is impressive, all the more so since it seems that his true destiny, by birth and by physical endowment, was to play football. A native of Sweetwater in the great state of Texas, the future Professor Fitts started playing organized football in the third grade, so that by his senior year in a Triple A Texas high school he was a 220 lb All-State tackle. Somewhere around 30 colleges and universities made him offers, schools such as the University of Oklahoma and Dartmouth, but strangely not UT Austin, a fact that inspired his lifelong distrust of the Longhorns.
Leon ultimately chose Rice, where he made the All-Southwest Conference freshman team. Soon, however, he became disenchanted with big time college football. “It was fun in high school,” he recalled to a Dickinsonian reporter, “but when I got to Rice, I found that football was just a big business. I had a contract to do a job. The fun was gone.” He decided to quit playing and start studying, and transferred to Baylor to prepare for the ministry. That’s where he began studying Greek.
What football and archaeology share is the uniting of the physical with the mental. Archaeology probably involves more physical labor than any other area of academic inquiry. As Leon wrote in 1978, “An archaeologist reconstructs man’s past by digging physically through his fragmented remains and transfusing meaning into them by the use of the mind. In each instance, the marriage of labor and thought produces happiness and contentment.”
As a teacher Leon has little patience with the theories of modern pedagogy. An unrepentant lecturer, he insisted that students memorize, a lot: not just dates, but obscure historical terms, elaborate archaeological ground plans of the Roman forum; the concrete data on which historical inquiry must rest. While most of the educational establishment was busy thinking of new ways to titillate the jaded undergraduate palette, Fitts once summed up his tough love approach, “They have a sense of entitlement; you have to break it.” It was tough, and they loved it.
Leon's involvement with students was significant. Many times former students from the 70's, 80's, and 90's stopped by the department unannounced to say hello, reminisce, and catch up. But the real treat was to go abroad with Leon. His appetite for ancient ruins, food, drink, conversation, and laughter created a unique Dickinson experience. Because he treated his students like adults and expected them to act accordingly while abroad, special bonds were created.
There was nothing like searching through the ruins of the Roman Forum or Ostia during the hottest summer day, and then having a wonderful dinner at one of Leon's chosen trattorias, topped off with a gelato. For the intrepid, a nightcap or two with their fearless leader was de rigueur as well. The conversation ranged from the Greeks and Romans to someone's latest romantic involvement. Students never forget such experiences, often saying that these were their most cherished Dickinson memories.
Yet another Fittsian maxim reveals his belief in education beyond the classroom: “If you want to get to know a student, play racquet ball with him.” Racquet ball, rather than football, was the destroyer of his much-operated on knees. He gave no more ground on the court than on the football field, however, and at least one student received a black eye during this kind of extra-curricular edification. Life-long friendships started there, and in the trenches at Leon’s many summer digs, and on the football field as well, since for years Leon found the time amidst his other responsibilities to coach the Red Devil defensive line.