Remembering Ivor Leclerc
By Nate Thayer
May 18, 2017
While perusing through my files and papers I came across a handwritten copy of an eulogy I delivered at the memorial service in May 1999 for my step father, Ivor Leclerc, held at the National Cathedral Church in Washington D.C.
I found stapled to my handwritten three page eulogy an excerpt from one of my favorite books: “Notes on Love and Courage” by Hugh Prather. I don’t remember when I attached the two documents, but the two snippets of writing, I think, fit seamlessly.
The excerpt from “Notes on Love and Courage” reads: “We need other people, not in order to stay alive, but to be fully human: to be affectionate, funny, playful, to be generous. How genuine is my capacity for love if there is no one for me to love, to laugh with, to treat tenderly, to be trusted by? I can love an idea or a vision, but I can’t throw my arms around it. Unless there is someone to whom I can give my gifts, in whose hands I can entrust my dreams, who will forgive me my deformities, my aberrations, to whom I can speak the unspeakable, then I am not human, I am a thing, a gadget that works but has no ashes.”
At the time of Ivor’s death, I was living in Bangkok and I flew the long transcontinental flight back to attend the memorial service and to, at the request of his wife, my mother, give the church eulogy for a man I loved very much. I arrived the evening before and, the following morning, in the crisp spring air, I sat in my mother’s back garden and thought about what Ivor Leclerc had meant to me and what kind of man he was.
Ivor Leclerc was the Fuller E. Callaway Professor Emeritus of Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, when he died from Alzheimer’s disease, age 84, this week 18 years ago, on May 16 1999 in Washington.
He retired from Emory in 1982 after 21 years at the University. He graduated from the University’s in South Africa and London, and taught in the U.K, Europe, Canada, and United States.
He was noted for his work on the philosophy of nature, and wrote many books. There was a book honoring him with the published works of colleagues titled “Metaphysics as Foundation: Essays in Honor of Ivor Leclerc.”
One scholarly paper he published in 1970 was “Whitehead And The Problem Of God.” Ivor did not believe in God, sort of and mainly, he said. But he was open to discussion on this and any subject.
“Surely one of the more significant thinkers in the philosophy of nature at this time is Ivor Leclerc,” wrote one reviewer of Ivor’s scholarly legacy.
But to me, and others, he was much more than those accomplishments.
During those 30 minutes in the garden prior to the church services, I wrote these thoughts on what Ivor Leclerc meant to me, which I delivered at the altar of the church a couple of hours later.
“My name is Nate Thayer and I am Ivor Leclerc’s stepson and, like those of you here today, I loved him deeply and I would like to tell you some of the reasons why.
Ivor, as you know, was a brilliant man. His intellectual prowess was truly astounding and that is part of his legacy which will live on forever through his books and the scholarship he imparted though his lifetime to students and colleagues.
But that is not why I loved him.
Ivor Leclerc was a philosopher, a metaphysician, professor, and author who was a noted authority on the works of the philosophers Leibniz and Alfred North Whitehead.
To be honest, I didn’t understand what the hell he was talking about most of the time.
I tried, through hundreds of hours of conversations during which Ivor would often skip from one century to another and from one academic discipline to another while I would be relegated to the day’s headlines, but I could only grasp some of what Ivor had spent 80 years and all his waking hours reading and thinking and listening to come to know.
I play a little game sometimes. I open up to any page in any of his many books and try to find one page where I understand the meaning of every word on it. I have never succeeded.
But more importantly, Ivor Leclerc was a profoundly gentle, thoughtful, genuinely kind and loving man.
Ivor died from Alzheimer’s disease this week.
My brother related a story from a conversation he had with Ivor a few weeks ago. Sitting in Ivor’s room, my brother mentioned that Ivor’s effects were imminently arriving from England, with his beloved books and papers.
Ivor was very lucid and excited and said what wonderful news that was, that now he could get back to his writing and latest book writing project.
Gently, Robert inquired as to, after a lifetime of work, that perhaps now was a time to reflect on life’s achievements. “Oh no!” said Ivor adamantly. “There is just too much to be done!”
I am sure he felt that to be true, but I would like to reflect on what Ivor had already done, for me and others.
If Ivor had chosen to, he could have been very intellectually intimidating, but he wasn’t.
But he was intimidating in another, very gentle and positive way.
Ivor Leclerc was a profoundly kind, loving, forgiving, encouraging, and gentle man, and the utter beauty—indeed starkness—of these qualities made those around him try to absorb them and take them on as their own.
Without ever uttering a word, he could exorcise the shallow, or mean-spirited, or judgmental, or selfish or hurtful behavior that we all sometimes exhibit, and, like a magician, make it disappear.
One simply felt guilty to behave badly in Ivor’s presence.
It made him sad to see people not be loving.
Ivor had experienced suffering and loss and pain, like all of us, in life.
Two of his ex-wives committed suicide while they were married.
And it made Ivor very disturbed when he saw people not think.
He was born in South Africa as a British citizen in 1915 and joined the South African army during World War II, serving as an intelligence officer in North Africa. It was then , he told me, that his life changed.
Born under and having lived his entire life under the despicable system of growing racial oppression, Ivor told me that WW2 was when he knew that South Africa faced a looming moral imperative: if all its citizens were not granted equal rights in South African society immediately after the war, there would be a period of horrific suffering, resistance, and bloodshed until it inevitably the government would have to abandon state-sponsored racial injustice.
He told me that he watched, in 1943 through 1945, as black South African conscripted to fight and sent to black ruled regions of North Africa during WW2, had seen that the South African system was not universal and blacks could control their own destiny. Once they returned home, they would never accept the government ideology of institutional oppression, he said.
South Africa had to make a choice: give its citizens freedom or double down on institutionalized racism.
In 1948, Apartheid as a policy was embraced in elections as the official ideology of South African.
Most white South Africans accepted the institutionalization of racial segregation.
Ivor Leclerc refused to. And he made his choice. Ivor left South Africa in 1948 and vowed to never return. And he didn’t.
Like most things in life, he was ahead of his time and prescient.
Ivor was one who utterly lacked pettiness, but had an infinite capacity for forgiveness of it in others.
And, I can assure you, when I came into his life as a particularly insufferable and confused young teenager—a very unpleasant species indeed—I must have tried his patience. But he never, ever said anything.
Through the normal swirl of bickering and complicate rancor that at times erupts as a family grows into adults, Ivor would sit quietly and listen—never offering a comment or joining the fray. But he would have always a very sad expression in his face he could not hide. Once the juvenile or petty or selfish or hurtful behavior subsided, he would rejoin the conversation as if it had never happened.
You knew he disapproved simply because he refused to participate. He would sit silently and observe.
Ivor lived and taught by example. One changed when in Ivor’s presence, one simply improved. One saw that his approach to life was better. It brought more joy to all.
I can say with certainty that, in 25 years, I never had an encounter with Ivor Leclerc where he didn’t offer a kind word, words of encouragement, and a compliment.
I am a better person because I was blessed to have had Ivor in my life. These gentle and loving lessons were to impact the very foundation of how I, and I am sure many others, decided to attempt to conduct our lives.
And as I grew, it was Ivor’s goodness that would often guide me in the way I tried to treat others.
This is the extraordinary and beautiful legacy of an extraordinary and beautiful man who lives on inside the spirit of many of us here today.
If we could each take a lesson from Ivor’s ways towards other human beings and make them part of how we conduct ourselves, how we treat others, how much brighter the world would be.
I know he would like that. And perhaps we, too, could change for the better, ourselves or another precious and insecure soul.
It is this, this extraordinary and beautiful legacy of this extraordinary and beautiful man, which will always live on in me, and guide me and others, in our own spirits.
Because of him, Ivor Leclerc, the world is a better place when he left us than when he came into our lives.
And that we should celebrate while we mourn.”
I miss Ivor Leclerc and I thank him for making me a better man than I was before he graced my life when I was a boy and, through his actions, helped guide me into being a more worthy adult.
Ivor Leclerc was a man of both Love and Courage.