Most mornings for the past decade would find Jimmy McLeod seated at the big table inside the Vices & Spices coffee shop. He would be engaged in lively conversation with anybody and everybody gathered around him and his wife, Elinor. There was hardly a topic about which he could not offer an intelligent, and often witty, observation. The more you got to know him, the more you came to realize that this gentleman with the neatly trimmed white beard was a Scottish version of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”
His last name was pronounced “McLoud,” but there was nothing loud or garish in his manner. His voice had an endearing lilt that was implanted so securely in his native Scotland that it never grew coarse over time. Although firm in his beliefs, he could get along with anybody, a quality that he must have nurtured when he played soccer for a farm team of Glasgow’s famed Celtic Football Club. Inasmuch as Jimmy came from a Protestant family in the small town of Dalry, he had to conceal his affiliation with Celtic, the pride of Scotland’s Catholic population.
Jimmy’s father died when he was a teenager, and he had to help support his family. One of his jobs was boning fish. “When he went to school, people would stay away from him,” Elinor said. He had a curious mind, though, and never was going to settle for common chores. He entered the Paisley College of Technology, and I was surprised to learn his field of study – like Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, Jimmy was interested in explosives. “He loved to go out into the moors and blow things up,” Elinor recalled.
Jimmy took part in a Scottish migration to North America in 1957. He landed in Brownsburg, in the Canadian province of Quebec, and worked as a research physicist. He was 23. Elinor Hayman, his fiancée, followed him to the new world. She lived separately with a family member until they were married on September 21. Elinor remembered that he took her out into the woods with a shotgun to hunt for their Christmas tree. He helped brace her against the recoil as she shot their chosen tree down.
Besides his scientific acumen, Jimmy had developed considerable skills as a soccer player. He joined a club in Montreal, and as a speedy right-winger (the only instance in which he could be so identified) he helped the team win the championship of eastern Canada.
In 1963, Jimmy took a job as an engineer at Delco in Goleta. While taking a work-related class at UCSB, he found out the students were starting a soccer club. He joined up and, at age 29, quickly became a star – “the wee man,” his teammates called the 5’6”, 150-pound Scottish dynamo. The Gauchos defeated UCLA and Cal in 1965. Jimmy continued playing recreationally until almost 50, and he also was involved in coaching AYSO youth soccer and the Santa Barbara Women’s Soccer Club.
Although much of Jimmy’s research during his years at Delco was related to military weaponry, he was one of the most liberal-minded, peace-loving people I’ve known. He drew people to him with his love of life as expressed in sport, food, and drink.
I first saw him refereeing a college soccer game. “He was our favorite ref,” goalkeeper Casey Roberts told me. “He was the only one who knew the game and really loved the game. He was like the invisible man out there.” Jimmy disdained the drama of emphatic gestures and red cards. If players misbehaved, he corrected them quietly. “The game flowed when he was on the field,” Roberts said.
Coming from the land of fine whisky, Jimmy was attuned to well-crafted beverages. He explored the hills and valleys of Santa Barbara County to see what they had to offer. In the early 1980s, he met Jim Clendenen, whose pioneering work with Burgundy varietals would lead to a world-class winery, Au Bon Climat, in the Santa Maria Valley. When he retired from Delco, Jimmy landed a job as tasting room manager at Rancho Sisquoc Winery. During his tenure, he hired Steve Clifton, an up-and-coming young vintner who has since become a producer of well regarded wines under the labels of Palmina and Brewer-Clifton.
Jimmy enjoyed sharing his knowledge of wine, and some years ago he began leading several friends, including me, on expeditions to various citadels of vinous pleasure. We called ourselves the Jimmy Tasting Team (JTT). Jimmy was deemed “the Laird,” a Scottish term for the owner of a large estate. His estate was the wine country. We were always welcome, because there was never a hint of arrogance in our bearing. That came straight from Jimmy. The only other organization he belonged to was E Clampus Vitus, a social group ardently dedicated to not taking itself too seriously.
One of Jimmy’s favorite pastimes after his visit to the coffee shop every morning was a brisk walk around the harbor and breakwater. He loved Santa Barbara, the place he called home for 50 years, but the abundant sunshine was a menace to his fair skin. He contracted skin cancer. It mercilessly invaded his body.
The JTT went on two joyful and tearful road trips with Jimmy this year. Clendenen and his gang at Au Bon Climat/Qupe welcomed us on January 22, the Laird’s 79th birthday. In mid-March, we visited Palmina Winery. Steve Clifton poured a 1994 Rancho Sisquoc Cabernet Sauvignon, the last wine that he and Jimmy had collaborated on. It was strong, deep, and firm, a testament to the loving care that went into it.
Jimmy McLeod drifted off to his final sleep on Good Friday, March 29. His survivors include his wife, three daughters, grandchildren, and countless friends. We will be celebrating his life at noon Sunday, April 21, at lower Manning Park.