Retired West Side principal, community activist dies

Theodis R. Leonard Sr., 78, retired from Paderewski School in 2001

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Theodis R. Leonard Sr., a retired principal of Paderewski School and community activist, died of natural causes Easter Sunday, April 8. He was 78.

Mr. Leonard served as principal of Paderewski School until his retirement in 2001. He was a founding member of the North Lawndale Learning Community, a network of principals, educators and North Lawndale residents.

His daughter, community activist Valerie Leonard, credited her father for "building my character and preparing me for leadership."

"He taught me right from wrong, took me to board meetings as a child, encouraged me to volunteer for community and church projects, and demanded excellence in everything I did," she said. "Our last moments together, I was helping him to exercise, but he was the coach. He used our last session together to demonstrate how important it was not to give up too soon. I am truly blessed to have had him in my life, and I thank God for him."

Mr. Leonard was born Feb. 3, 1934, in Slater, Miss. He was the fifth of six surviving children born to Joseph Richard and Lelia Leonard. He graduated from Mileston High School in Tchula, Miss., in 1953 and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he served four years. After obtaining the rank of staff sergeant and receiving a special commendation for inventing a hand tool to service airplanes, Leonard was honorably discharged in 1957.

Shortly thereafter, he married his high school sweetheart, Essie Tate, and moved to Chicago's North Lawndale community. The couple was married for 54 years and have four adult children. The family was among the first African-Americans to purchase homes in North Lawndale's K-Town.

Mr. Leonard enrolled at Crane Junior College, receiving an AB degree in education. Later he received his master's in guidance and counseling from Chicago's Teachers College (now Chicago State University). He completed additional coursework to obtain his Type 75 certification (to qualify for school principal) at Governor's State University.

A teacher at Gregory School beginning in 1965, Leonard was eventually promoted to guidance teacher, and later to assistant principal. He was a lifetime member of the NAACP, Retired Teachers Association and the Principals and Administrators Association.

Mr. Leonard worshiped at Carey Tercentenary AME Church for more than 50 years. The South Homan Avenue church hosted his funeral on April 14. He served in a number of capacities, including Sunday School superintendent, a member of the Usher board, and a board trustee. Mr. Leonard was also co-chairman of a scholarship drive in which the church sold subscriptions to Johnson Publishing Company magazines.

Above all of these accomplishments, Mr. Leonard was a family man. He is survived by his wife Essie, also a retired teacher; four children - Renee (Floyd) Turner, Valerie F. Leonard, Theodis R. Leonard, Jr. and Curtis Allan Leonard. He also has 10 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.

Funeral services were provided by Leak and Sons Funeral Home.

Terry Dean, AustinTalks.org

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