When Dr. James “Jim” Leigh Jr. had something to say, people paid attention.
“Jim was quiet, and he was one of those guys that when he did talk, everybody listened,” Dr. Chad Copper, general/robotics surgeon at Longstreet Clinic, said. “He was very thoughtful.”
Leigh, a general surgeon who was one of the founding members of Longstreet Clinic, served the medical group up until his death on May 29, 2021. He was 78 years old.
“I think from the practice of medicine, certainly the surgery group we have here today, that is a significant legacy right there,” Mimi Collins, CEO of Longstreet Clinic, said.
Collins said Leigh was one of around five physicians who had the vision of creating Longstreet Clinic in the early ‘90s. Through his efforts alongside others, she said multiple practices were merged to form the organization, which began operating in 1995. Leigh served as its second president from 1996 to 1998.
Collins said Leigh was also instrumental in paving the way for Longstreet Clinic’s oncology practice, seeing the importance of providing more access for cancer patients in the area.
Dr. J. Allen Butts Jr., retired board-certified general surgeon at Longstreet Clinic, said he has known Leigh most of his life. He said Leigh began practicing in Gainesville in 1973, quickly establishing himself as a reputable surgeon.
Performance by The Believers Concert Band
What: Concert in honor of Dr. James “Jim” Leigh Jr.
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 14
Where: Gladys Wyant Performing Arts Pavilion, 331 Spring St. SW, Gainesville
“My father was a physician and was hard on surgeons,” Butts said. “He expected the best, and Leigh delivered the best.”
Butts said he first worked with the skilled surgeon in college, later becoming Leigh's partner in an individual practice linked to Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Leigh also operated at the old Lanier Park Hospital.
During his 30 years working alongside Leigh, Butts said he learned what it means to be a good mentor.
“He was a wonderful partner, he was a wonderful friend and a wonderful mentor,” Butts said. “He took excellent care of patients and expected partners to take excellent care of patients.”
Collins said she remembers when Leigh and Dr. Buddy Langston first spoke to her about her joining Longstreet Clinic as its executive director. She said the two gave her the push to pursue the endeavor.
“My career wouldn’t be where it is without him,” Collins said.
Butts and Collins said Leigh helped establish a culture of caring and collegiality within Longstreet Clinic’s surgery group, one that still remains today.
“When Dr. Leigh was on call, you knew you were leaving your patients with the best care,” Butts said. “ … He never imposed on his partners’ graces. He always tried to give more than he took. He was never shy about asking for help.”
Copper, who first began working at Longstreet Clinic in 2005, said around 30 years ago, Leigh was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer. With this form of illness, he said people have a 1-2% chance of living, even after undergoing chemotherapy.
Leigh decided he would take the risk and pursue experimental surgery. After receiving three operations, Copper said Leigh defied the odds.
“He was a walking miracle, he beat his cancer that had probably a 98% mortality rate,” Copper said. “ … He kept working even after that. People talk of him doing rounds on patients while he was carrying his IV pole with his chemotherapy on it.”
If someone talked to Leigh within the past 10 years, Copper said they’d be hard-pressed not to hear about his sons and grandchildren. He said the surgeon was also dedicated to his wife, Mary Frances, who is alive today.
Butts and many others describe Mary Frances as “a force to be reckoned with.” He said one of his fondest memories involves an interaction between the couple.
“He equally loved and feared his wife,” Butts said. “I literally have seen him leave in the middle of a busy office. His wife called and reminded him he had not filled up her gas tank. He left, apologizing to patients.”
The Believers Concert Band, of which Leigh used to be a member, is honoring the surgeon with a performance at 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, at The Arts Council’s Gladys Wyant Performing Arts Pavilion. Family, friends, colleagues, patients and others who knew him are welcome to attend.
Richard Hunt, the band’s trombone player, said the concert’s music will tie in with Leigh’s music preferences, including his love of playing the euphonium. Three euphonium musicians will perform “When the Saints Go Marching In” and the morning will include religious hymns and other familiar songs.