After 50 Fantastic Years, McCallie's Cleve Latham Calls It A Career

  • Thursday, February 15, 2024
  • McCallie website
Cleve Latham at graduation
Cleve Latham at graduation

Two years.

That’s how long Luther Cleveland Latham expected to work at McCallie School when he moved into South Hutcheson dorm in the fall of 1974 after graduating from Vanderbilt the prior spring.

“Betty had one more year at Vanderbilt, and we were going to be married the next summer (June 7, 1975),” said Dr. Latham. “So working at McCallie would allow us to be a couple of hours from each other that first year. Then I’d give it one more year and try to find a college English position or maybe a writing gig.”

Headmaster Spencer McCallie III ‘55 had other ideas.

“Cleve was my first hire,” said Spence III, who retired as head of school in 2000. “In fact, I wasn’t even headmaster when we hired him. But my father said I needed to start filling out some faculty positions that were open and interviewing some candidates. Cleve was my first."

Whether it was Dr. Latham’s mesmerizing Vicksburg, Ms. drawl, the one dripping with Old South charisma, or his mischievous irreverence laced with a dose of elite university smugness, Spence III was immediately charmed and captivated.

“Cleve was interesting, witty, fun to talk to and obviously loved writing and literature,” Spencer said last week. “That’s all I needed to know.”

But there was something else that stood out to McCallie that day, something that’s been apparent to McCallie boys and parents and fellow faculty members for 50 years.

“From the beginning, Cleve had this certain magic,” said Spencer III. “Something that just drew people to him and his classes. When I hired him, I had no right to expect that. But it was always there. And Cleve never peaked, which is so unusual. You kept waiting for it, maybe just get a little tired, a little stale. But it never happened. His teaching was always hitting a new level.”

Come May of this year, the elevator stops. No more new levels. No more new books or essays to read. No more writing assignments to pen from fresh angles. After 50 years of lifting literature and writing, especially creative writing, to constant new heights at McCallie, Cleve Lathan is retiring, off to chase, in Betty’s words, “New adventures.”

Added Cleve: “Betty and I want to spend more time with each other, with our family, especially the granddaughters. We want to travel a bit, unencumbered by the school schedule. I've been teaching fiction writing to boys for decades, but I haven't had much time to write on my own, so I'd like to live the life of a writer for a while.”

The life of a writer. He gave the school a window into a gifted writer’s heart and soul for half a century. As current English Department head Sam Currin ‘03 recently said of Dr. Latham: “Nobody embodies the philosophy and practice of a master teacher more than Cleve. His classes are always in a constant state of flux, and everything he does is done with purpose and passion.”

His immense skills were so obvious in his doctoral dissertation at Vanderbilt that “A Fraternity of Scholars: Notes on Teaching and Learning in a Boys School” won VU’s Arville Wheeler Prize in 1999 for outstanding contribution to secondary education.

Wrote McCallie head of school A. Lee Burns III ‘87, who took AP English from Dr. Latham, on the teacher’s impact on McCallie: “Cleve Latham is a McCallie legend. Eclectic, eccentric, and entertaining, he was beloved and admired by generations of McCallie boys. I attribute much of my love of writing and reading to Cleve. His AP English class had a profound and lasting impact on me. He captured the attention and imagination of his students. His classes were as lively as they were demanding. He inspired us to think, feel, and dream. He likewise inspired his colleagues and our approaches as a school to curriculum and pedagogy. Whether with his students or colleagues, he was a compassionate and caring man who served and supported others. His legacy will be enduring at McCallie.”

No alum is more justifiably lauded for his writing skills than Burns’ classmate Jon Meacham ‘87, the former editor of Newsweek and the author of numerous New York Times best sellers. Wrote Mr. Meacham in a text message: “If Cleve didn’t exist, Tennessee Williams would have had to have invented him. But fortunately for us who know him and love him, Cleve is quite real. A teacher of insight, a reader of perception, a friend of grace, he has been an architect of innumerable lives.”

Added current English teacher, David Cook, “Even though we are colleagues, Cleve has been my teacher, reminding me of what an empowered, gutsy, compassionate, and unapologetic classroom looks like. Cleve has offered immeasurable amounts of kindness, empathy, and acceptance to McCallie students while also pushing them to find and discover their best writing selves. He’s been both an icon and iconoclast. McCallie doesn’t seem like McCallie without him.”

Campbell Taylor graduated in 2017. He took Contemporary Literature from Dr. Latham as a senior elective. “That first day, I’m thinking ‘what did I get myself into? I thought senior year was going to be easy.’ But he knows how to get you to think outside the box. He has this knack for guiding you to find the answer on your own. He taught me to be introspective, ask questions that have helped me in every aspect of my life. They’ll never replace him. That’s what makes him special.”

McCallie senior Brogan Capecchi ‘24 has taken two classes from Dr. Latham. He said of his teaching style: “Dr. Latham is the most knowledgeable and unintentionally funny English teacher I have ever had. Dr. Latham doesn’t hesitate to give you feedback on your writing, whether it’s critique or praise, and that’s one reason he’s such a good teacher.”

His accomplishments could fill the thickest books he’s taught. English Department Chair from 1977 to 1982. Director of College Guidance for 13 years, when McCallie’s Ivy League acceptance rate jumped 500 percent. Dean of Studies from 1998 to 2008. President of the National Association of College Admission Counselors. A yoga instructor with over 300 teaching hours.

McCallie’s Director of Tennis Operations and former head tennis coach, Eric Voges ‘81, had Dr. Latham his senior year at McCallie, then later turned to Dr. Latham to work with his team as a yoga instructor.

“To this day, I still remember how Cleve Latham reignited my love for English my senior year,” said Mr. Voges. “With Cleve, there was never a dull class. He forced you outside your comfort zone to write with heart and meaning as opposed to just filling the paper. His unique personality made it all the more fun and challenging. Years later I had him work with our Varsity Tennis Team on yoga and strength, and he still had a way of making the team listen to him and enjoy the challenge.”

It’s those stories rather than the accomplishments and achievements that everyone talks about. Michael Lebowitz ‘82 remembers the time he walked into class and told them he’d just driven his beloved Cadillac El Dorado through his garage door. “I forgot it was closed,” he told them.

When he first got to McCallie, his closet was full of pastel-colored button-downs from his frat-boy days at Vanderbilt. They all carried his monogram LCL on the breast pocket. In the 1980s, when he began to lose a fair amount of weight, he had Betty take the shirts to the Bargain Mart. A student found them, bought them for a quarter a piece and he walked into class one day to find all his students wearing those button-downs.

“Oh, if we’d only had iPhones in those days,” Cleve said.

Sometime in April, McCallie will stage a banquet to honor Dr. Latham where there are sure to be stories on top of stories, more of them than Cleve had pastel button-downs. The school will provide details at a later date.

That night is sure to have McCallie English teacher Kathaleen Hughes, who has known the Lathams socially and professionally for years, reaching for her tissues. She wrote of her co-worker: “He's cryptically funny, and you already know how rebellious he is. He loves to spark that controversial conversation and to put his students (and peers) on edge. Incendiary, persnickety, and deeply aware of his role in the grand scheme of things, Cleve will leave a HUGE hole!”

Of course, it is impossible to reflect on Cleve without mentioning Betty, who was with Cleve before Cleve came to McCallie and will be by his side long after Cleve says good-bye to the Ridge.

Wrote Hughes of their 49-year union: “He's so sweet to Betty, which says it all!”

An ordained Episcopal Priest, a mother to Ginger and grandmother to Polly and Louise, a gifted writer in her own right, the former First Lady of the McCallie English Department says the first two things she learned upon moving into South Hutch in 1975 were “To never put your nightgown on before 11 o’clock and always have boiled eggs for the wrestlers in the dorm, because it helped them make weight.”

Over the years she helped stage pumpkin carving parties and Christmas cookie baking parties for Cleve’s advisees, baked cookies or brownies or something sweet for his students every Friday and cooked dinner for some of the students during the four years she lived in the dorm.

Asked what she cooked, she said, “I don’t know. But they loved it because it wasn’t what they ate in the cafeteria.”

Of her husband’s teaching style, Betty said, “One of Cleve’s greatest gifts is to find what will spark a boy’s interest in learning and ignite it. And he always does that in an encouraging way. And with his boys, his relationship with them is unconditional. They can come to him about anything. Anything. He is safe territory. He is their advocate.”

To that point, Drew Read ‘89, McCallie’s Chief Development Officer, recalled how “Cleve once came to my defense in front of the disciplinary committee.”

Just this past weekend, Ginger was stopped by a couple at her Birmingham church to tell her what a positive impact her father had had on their son.

“My dad didn’t help my dating life,” she joked. “But I’ve always been so proud of the impact he had on his students’ personal lives. He was always about making their lives better any way he could.”

To know Dr. Latham in 1974, a man no more than six or seven years older than his students, was to know someone soft on the outside, a bit on the heavy side who was tough, sometimes bordering on harsh, as a teacher.. Again, Lebovitz: “I worked with him on the yearbook, and I had him in class. He always demanded your best, and if you didn’t give it, he wanted you to do it again. He didn’t accept mediocrity. He demanded excellence.”

But perhaps as yoga made his body smaller and with sharper, more defined angles, his teaching style softened just a tiny bit.

Of his students today, Dr. Latham says, “If they’re in my classroom, I want it to be a good experience for them. There was a time when I wanted it to be a good experience for me.”

After 50 years, a place becomes a home. Much as so many are so proud of him, Dr. Latham will say, “It’s so easy to be proud of McCallie. Whenever we’ve won these football state championships. Or started squash. Or gotten these kids in outstanding universities. I’m so proud to be associated with this school.”

The literary lion in winter often comes home to find Betty watching a replay of last year’s state championship football win over Baylor. When Cleve asks ‘Why are you watching this, you already know the ending,” she replies, “I love to watch (Coach) Ralph (Potter) celebrate when he knows we’re going to win. Besides, it never gets old beating Baylor.”

Despite retirement, it never seems to get old for Cleve to teach, his peak still in front of him.

“The thing that has separated me is that I love writing. I love to teach writing. My ministry is to push our best students to be better.”

But it’s also his ministry for “Big Daddy,” as Polly and Louise call him, to get better in touch with his family, to make up for lost time in an attempt to turn back time. To travel and write and experience life beyond the Ridge.

A couple of weeks ago, as Dr. Latham looked out his fifth floor classroom inside a building that wasn’t built when he first arrived on campus in 1974, he tried to frame his five decades on the Ridge.

“People ask me what it’s like to give your life to McCallie,” Dr. Latham said. “It’s the other way around. McCallie gave my life to me.”

Cleve Latham pictured with students
Cleve Latham pictured with students
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