The word "president" implies a lot.
It suggests everything from power to a suit; things the average person does not deal with on a regular basis. The title can make its holder seem separate and distant from the typical individual.
That is not the case with Steven Leath, Iowa State’s 15th president, who is working to be anything but separate and distant from his students.
Although Leath began work during the second semester of last academic year, Friday is his official installation. The ceremony will be at 10 a.m. in Stephens Auditorium and will include an introduction by Erskine Bowles, a close friend of Leath.
“An installation provides a president an actual opportunity to kind of lay out their priorities, their goals, for their tenure as president, both short-term objectives, as well as long-term objectives," said Miles Lackey, Iowa State's first associate vice president.
"He’s also looking forward to having the opportunity to tell the Iowa State community just a little bit more about himself," Lackey said.
Leath was born in Providence, R.I., 13 months after his older brother, with whom he would always have an especially close relationship.
Both of Leath’s sets of grandparents were immigrants. His father’s parents were from England and his mother’s were from Italy.
“I’m only second generation, so we had, I would say, a very ethnic upbringing,” Leath said, referring to himself and his three other siblings.
At the age of 2, the family moved to St. Paul, Minn., where Leath enjoyed an active childhood. When Leath was in junior high, the family packed up once again and moved to central Pennsylvania.
There, he took up outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing, and he became active in school sports such as wrestling and track. He also began working part-time on local farms.
After high school, Leath attended college at Penn State, where, according to his ISU biography, he attained a bachelor's degree in plant science. This degree would be followed by two more: a master’s in plant science from the University of Delaware and a doctorate in plant pathology from the University of Illinois. Throughout his academic and professional career, Leath came to be involved in a lot of research.
Leath’s father was an agricultural research scientist as well.
“When we were real little, we would go to his lab and measure the size of fungal colonies … that’s probably where I got excited about plant pathology and doing agricultural research,” Leath said.
Leath’s expertise with plants, however, is not limited to his research. In fact, his family owns a Christmas tree farm, which they started in 1997.
“It’s kind of like therapy sometimes, just to be out in the tree fields on a beautiful spring or fall morning,” he shared.
The tree farm business is now run by Scott Leath, 22, Leath’s youngest son who is currently a senior in college. His oldest son, Eric Leath, 25, works for the U.S. Senate. Leath admits that as thrilled as he is to have gotten the job at Iowa State, it was difficult to leave his sons behind on the East Coast.
That does not mean that Steven and his wife, Janet Leath, reside by themselves at the Knoll though. They share their residence with Quill and Dixie, their two dogs to whom they enjoy devoting time and attention.
Despite the distance from his sons, Leath is enthusiastic about his new job at Iowa State, to which he dedicates nearly all of his time. Typically, Leath works all day, either attends a dinner event or has dinner with his wife and then returns to work.
He averages six hours of sleep per night.
With such a busy schedule, it can be difficult to get recreational activities in, but Leath enjoys archery. Sometimes he even shoots his bow in his garage. He also enjoys horseback riding, a hobby he and his wife have bonded over.
Incidentally, he has received several injuries from riding, including a severely broken leg and seven broken ribs. Other injuries he has suffered include broken fingers and cutting through his kneecap with a chainsaw.
About four years ago, Leath also took up flying airplanes, a hobby he has managed to incorporate into his job.
“I like to fly; whenever I get a chance to fly to a meeting, I will usually fly myself," he said. "It’s one of those few times when you can clear away all of the work things out of your head. … It’s very relaxing."
Leath also enjoys traveling. He has been to more than 20 countries but has yet to visit Italy. He and his wife had a trip planned there last September, but an important job interview in Ames caused the trip to be postponed.
Also high on his list of places to visit is Alaska.
“I’ve been pretty blessed, so there’s not a lot of things that I want to do that I haven’t had a chance; but, boy, Alaska would be one, and I would like to go on a big hunting trip with my sons sometime.”
Leath, a self-proclaimed extrovert, also enjoys visiting with ISU students. Previously, he had held a position at an administrative office where his interactions with students were limited, and he had missed the campus atmosphere.
“I eat a fair bit at [Iowa State’s] dining halls, and sometimes I eat alone because no one will sit with me,” he said, laughing. “I like hearing things unfiltered.”
His associate vice president, Lackey, previously worked with Leath in North Carolina.
“He’s just a really good man," Lackey said. "He’s got character; he has integrity; he’s got an innate desire to serve; and he also enjoys building those meaningful relationships. His personality is just very well suited for being a university president. He just overall is a really great person,” Lackey said.
With such a diverse personality — from his extensive education, to speaking Spanish, to the history he enjoys reading — there are many points for students and staff at Iowa State to relate to their president, who promises the students that “they can always remember that [my] number one objective here is [to provide] high quality undergraduate education.”