Longtime Saint Martin's University professor Les Bailey dies

Leslie G. Bailey
Leslie G. Bailey Saint Martin's University

Beloved. Hard-nosed. Feared. Kind-hearted.

Those are just a few of the ways colleagues, friends and former students described longtime Saint Martin’s University professor Leslie Bailey, who died from complications of cancer last week at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia. He was 68.

Known as Dr. B to many, the English professor survived a bout with colon cancer about five years ago. But last spring, cancer showed up in his liver.

Bailey died about 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve while surrounded by friends.

“He wasn’t prepared to die now at all,” said Holly Harmon, one of Bailey’s best friends and a former communications director at Saint Martin’s. “He fought to the bitter end. He wanted to live.”

Details are still being worked out for a public memorial service, which likely will be on campus in late January after students and faculty members return from semester break, Harmon said. Bailey didn’t have children; he is survived by his brother, Don, of Cleveland; a sister-in-law; and nieces and a nephew.

Because the campus is closed, many students, faculty members and alumni learned about his death via e-mail and social networking sites such as Facebook.

The news came as a shock because Bailey had taught courses in the fall while undergoing chemotherapy and had planned to teach during the spring semester, which begins Jan. 10.

“We all went away for Christmas knowing Les was sick, but nobody thought it would take a turn for the worse,” said Jeff Birkenstein, associate professor of English at Saint Martin’s. “It changed when we were all away for Christmas break, and that makes it harder, I think.”

Bailey received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Saint Martin’s in 1964, a master’s degree from Baylor University in 1966 and a doctorate from Indiana University in 1975.

He joined the faculty at Saint Martin’s in 1966.

“He was a kind and patient man who took extra time to help students like me who struggled in school,” said Angie Johnson of Seattle, a 1998 Saint Martin’s graduate. “I could go to Dr. Bailey anytime and talk about anything that was going on, regardless if it had to do with English.”

Perhaps that’s because he could relate to students who were a little rebellious, said Saint Martin’s registrar Mary Conley Law.

“He wasn’t just a goody-two shoes in college,” Law said. “(One day) he managed to get a piece of stationery from the president’s office and sent a memo that school was closed for the day.”

Many also believed Bailey had been involved in one of the college’s former underground newspapers, she said.

But Bailey had a serious side, and his connection with Saint Martin’s spanned nearly 50 years as a student, alumnus and professor. During that time, he helped shape the 115-year-old Benedictine university into what it is today, said Father Kilian Malvey, a monk at Saint Martin’s Abbey and the chairman of the religious studies department.

“He was very much involved with the politics of the school, and he really was responsible in developing the student union building and the student council,” Malvey said.

Friends say Bailey was a fabulous cook whose specialties included salmon bisque and lasagna. He loved to entertain students and faculty members in his home.

“He was such a great host, and all of the parties were at his place,” Birkenstein said.

Bailey was fascinated by all things British, especially Victorian literature and poetry. He was known for incorporating the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Charles Dickens into his lessons.

“He was just a powerhouse in the classroom,” Saint Martin’s English professor Olivia Archibald said. “If you took a class from Les Bailey, you read all the time, and the novels were thick, big and heavy.”

Because he taught English 101 and English 102 and helped with the freshman seminar program, taking one of Bailey’s challenging courses was practically a rite of passage for Saint Martin’s students.

“I heard rumors about how terrible he was, how brutal he was,” said Eric Franklin of Anchorage, who graduated from Saint Martin’s in 1995. “But once you got to know him, he was a really cool guy. He demanded attention to detail, but he had a heart of gold.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433