Leonard reaches milestone birthday

Passion keeps him young at age 90
May. 17, 2013 @ 09:22 AM

Few people feel young after turning 90.

Maj. Gen. Hubert Leonard is no ordinary person.

Leonard's extraordinary life reached a milestone April 23 when the World War II veteran and former Thomasville mayor turned 90 years old. Aside from a few declining senses, the man who has shaken hands with 10 American presidents feels he is ready to see quite a few more birthdays. 

"I feel like I ought to be about 150 years old," Leonard  said jokingly. "I do not see as well as I used to, I do not hear as well as I used to, but I have a good appetite, good energy, and I don't have any pain. What more could you ask for? I feel good every day."

With most of his family only a short drive away, Leonard is enjoying the latter stages of a life filled with rich history and an indelible mark on the place he's called home for nine decades. While his birth certificate reads Candor, Thomasville is as much a part of Leonard as he is of it.

For Leonard, the Chair City's appeal is truly about the little things. 

"We have wonderful people who live here," said Leonard. "We have an outstanding city staff and management that makes things happen without a fuss going on. 

"What I notice the most is how the individual residents maintain their property. You ride around and you don't see many lawns not mowed. That impresses me  most."

Born at his grandmother's house on April 23, 1923, Leonard came home three days later and has been a Thomasville fixture ever since. Shortly after graduating from Thomasville High School in 1941, Leonard joined the military and went on to fly B-25s in the South Pacific during World War II. Out of all the mementoes and artifacts collected in his house from what would become a 43-year military career, a tethered flag taken from Mount Sirabachi on the island of Iwo Jima still defines what serving means to him.

"My tail gunner and I went up there and saw a Japanese flag hanging outside a cave on two strings," Leonard said. "As I was untying it from a tree limb of a flagpole, I glanced down and here lay a dead Japanese soldier at my feet, all mangled up. My whole thinking changed. This guy had died for his flag and I'm here fighting for my flag. It didn't deter me from the mission I had but it did make me think about what a terrible thing war was. People give their lives when it seems people could sit around a table and resolve it." 

When Leonard safely returned from the war, his military career continued in the National Guard. By the 1960s, Leonard started gaining statewide recognition for his service, leading eventually to him becoming a Brigadier General. In 1991, President Bill Clinton named Leonard a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army, a position he would hold jointly with his local job — mayor of Thomasville. 

A model of the Chair City stretches across Leonard's dining room, depicting various sites, both past and present, from across Thomasville. During his time as mayor, Leonard saw many of the places in his model appear and disappear. Unilin and Walmart arrived as Thomasville Furniture Industries slowly faded away.

He remains optimistic about his hometown's future because of his faith in its people. 

"I think some day something similar will come back to Thomasville," said Leonard. "We have a lot of responsible people on the lookout for new industry to come in. It's happening some. I think it's the composition of the people here. It's a good community."

Leonard's impact on Thomasville is felt no more than on Memorial Day. What started out as six people clearing honeysuckles and weeds from around a veteran's monument near Cushwa Stadium in order to lay pansies nearly 30 years ago is now one of the largest Memorial Day parades in the country.  

"We formed a marching parade from the Big Chair to the monument the first year," Leonard said. "There was 10 to 12 of us the first year and more people got involved. Once we got that going everything came to life. It's just grown every year."

Leonard is disappointed this year's parade is being impacted by government sequestration cuts that will limit what organizers of the event have access to. Leonard plans to form a group of responsible citizens to protest the cuts and to call on lawmakers to show the parade not only benefits service men and women, but the community as well. 

"It's disheartening," said Leonard. "The main thing we're concentrating on now is these 20 families who lost a loved one in the last year. That's what the parade is about anyhow. I think we'll have it fixed once we get organized and explain it to the powers that be because there's a lot more waste out there than what we do on Memorial Day."

Now a great-grandfather, Leonard's ever-expanding family keeps him feeling young. His extraordinary life almost certainly has several more milestones to go.

Leonard wouldn't ask for anything more.

Staff Writer Eliot Duke can be reached at 888-3578, or duke@tvilletimes.com.