Westmont Magazine Planning a Part-time Retirement
After 41 years of teaching sociology, Mike Leming ’70 retires in December as a professor at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. But he won’t quit working. Each spring he’ll continue directing Spring Semester in Thailand, a program he and wife, Ann Lundquist Leming ’70, started in 2001.
Mike shows no signs of slowing down. He’s teaching a full class schedule his last semester, finishing a book and traveling to recruit students for Thailand. Packing a lot into a short period is standard operating procedure for Mike. By the age of 22, he’d not only graduated from Westmont but earned a master’s degree in sociology from Marquette University and started his teaching career. He completed his doctorate at the University of Utah in three years while teaching half time there for two years and full time for one. He had taught at St. Olaf for a year in 1971 and rejoined the faculty in 1975.
Best known for his expertise in death, dying and bereavement, Mike has written 27 books and many articles on topics such as kinship, religion, death rituals and behavior during bereavement. When he started this work, few people wanted to talk about death. “America used to be a death-denying society, but people have become more open,” he says. “Hospice helped reverse that trend, transforming our view of dying. But few college students have been to a funeral or a cemetery, and it’s important for them to have a meaningful experience with death. I ask students to talk with their parents and grandparents about end-of-life issues. How do they want to be remembered? What kind of memorial service do they want?”
Mike has played a leading role in the national organization Association of Christians Teaching Sociology, advocating the integration of faith and his discipline. The founder and former director of the St. Olaf College Social Research Center, he has served on the boards of the Minnesota Coalition on Terminal Care and the Northfield AIDS Response. He’s volunteered with Hospice, teaching and counseling the grieving. He received a Pew Evangelical Scholars grant to study Thailand’s Karen tribe for a year.
Mike is most proud of the cross-cultural, life-changing experience Ann and he provide for students in Thailand. As they live with Thai families and take classes at Chang Mai University, students give back through study-service internships. They’ve built two churches and three schools, completed two water projects, started sustainable agricultural programs and cared for 40 orphans in the past five years.
“Investing in students is the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” Mike says. “Helping them put into practice what they’ve learned transforms their education. I discovered this myself when I volunteered for Hospice and worked with dying people instead of just writing about them. It’s like driving the car instead of the simulator.”
The couple’s most ambitious undertaking is establishing a performing arts center in Thailand for the disabled, which the Thai government has supported with a $6.9 million grant. “The disabled come to life as they perform, and it’s exciting to see,” Mike says. “Last year, we put on three shows and caught the attention of the Thai mental health industry.”
Mike and Ann speak Thai, and they will live part time in their Chang Mai home, visiting the market every day and greeting friends there. “When I retire I’m going to a better place: Thailand,” he says. “I feel at home in that culture. And after that, I’m going to an even better place.”