Leonard Black was tall and dapper, and when you came upon him, he was always engaging with that welcoming way.
He could wear a sweater-vest with the best of ‘em, and workout clothing, too. And when it came to that navy blue suit accented with a baby blue shirt and tightly-knotted neck-tie, Leonard Black came right out of Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine.
“Hello, brother,” Black would always say in that way of his, and then he would want to know how you were doing and what was going on in your life. “What’s happening? How you been, brother?”
He was good to look upon.
He was good to be around.
He had a way that just gravitated you toward him. And how he would light up telling you about helping son Len out with his business or what daughter Elizabeth was up to in Greensboro and that daughter Claudia was off on a new adventure. And when it came to those five grandchildren, there was nothing better than having them to dote on while on the porch at Topsail Beach.
Ever the athlete and the sportsman
Leonard Black was a Massey Hill boy out of the Tolar Hart mill village. He made a name for himself as a gifted football player in the early 1950s at old Fayetteville High School that took him to Duke University, where he and Sonny Jurgensen would help the Blue Devils to a 7-2-1 record, the Atlantic Coast Conference title and a 34-7 victory over Nebraska in the 1955 Orange Bowl. Black would spend a brief time with the Washington Redskins before playing later with the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League.
Black was skilled in most every sport, from baseball, basketball and golf, where he was a scratch golfer who in his late 60s found himself in the final pairings with golfers half his age contending for the Cumberland County Golf Championship from the back tees of Cypress Lakes Golf Course. Those golfing kids were attired in their shorts and T-shirts. Black wore his white Footjoy golf shoes and dressed like Arnold Palmer. Black didn’t win the tournament, but he got a kick out of giving the young golfing bucks a run for the title.
He made his later way in life as a sales representative for Haggar Clothing Co., throwing footballs with his son in the back yard along his Woodcrest Avenue home in Haymount, shooting hoops with daughter Elizabeth and teaching daughter Claudia to throw a baseball like a Major Leaguer pitcher.
Sports never was far from his heart, and when men like Charlie Priest, Vance Neal, Charles Koonce, Steve Godwin and the late Fritz Healy bandied about the idea of a sports organization to recognize Cumberland County athletes and coaches, Black was right there with them in founding the Fayetteville Sports Club. He was the club’s second president and was inducted into the FSC Hall of Fame in 2015.
The club brought professional tennis events to this city and the ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament to the old Cumberland County Arena from 1983 to 1991. Later, you found him participating in charity golfing events with athletes like Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Theismann and Lawrence Taylor wherever a charity golf event called.
He was proud of his days as an athlete, and being a Bulldog, a Blue Devil, a Redskin and an Argonaut. The walls of his condominium years back were lined with newspaper clippings and photographs of those athletic days. In a corner leaned his Acushnet Bulls-eye putter, with a blade flush as could be. Black knew a solid John Reuter-crafted Bulls-eye putter when he saw one.
Black was proud the evening when the Fayetteville Sports Club inducted him into its FSC Hall of Fame.
He was honored.
He was humble.
One Christmas evening
For all of those newspaper clippings that lined the walls of his condominium, it was the email note of Dec. 30, 2013, that perhaps brought Black as much joy as the headlines of his athletic accomplishments and accolades.
“You bought my family and I dinner ... I just wanted to reiterate my thanks for your generosity,” a young Air Force sergeant wrote about the evening before Christmas when Black paid for that family’s dinner at the old Applebee’s along Raeford Road.
"That was our first time out in Fayetteville since we arrived from Germany. It was also my daughter Grace's two-year birthday, which was the reason we went to dinner. We weren't in our own home yet and were unable to cook her a proper dinner, and that was a treat for all of us. You also made a 2-year-old's day," Sgt. Christopher Abbott wrote, "by enabling us to spoil her with a big dessert.”
Black was reluctant to tell that story.
"I was having dinner out with my son when I saw this young couple come in with three young children," he said. "I had no idea who they were or where they were from, but I thought it would be nice to buy their dinner. I certainly didn't want to embarrass him. But I just went over and wished him and his family a Merry Christmas, and asked if he'd let me buy their dinner. He said, 'Yes, sir,' and I gave him $100, and his wife broke into tears."
Black left the young sergeant his business card and told him if he or his family ever needed anything during their assignment at Pope Army Airfield not to hesitate to give him a call.
“Imagine how great Fayetteville sounds when they tell their family and friends what happened to them on their first night out here," Black later told me. "You never know, but maybe we could start a 'pass it on.' Let's go for it."
Leonard H. Black died Friday not long after midnight, surrounded by family and a son holding a father’s hand.
He was 86.
“Everyone was with him, including me, the last few days,” says Suzanne Uzzell, who once was married to Black and gave him the children he adored, and Suzanne Uzzell is a testament that a marriage may unravel, but never the love of the heart.
We were reminded Tuesday at Cross Creek Cemetery of Leonard Black’s love of family, friends, football and his faith that was recalled in his morning walks among the seashells for prayers and devotionals, as my mind raced back to a young Air Force sergeant’s words not long after the Christmas holidays of 2013.
“My family and I will always remember that night when one man made a new family, and more so, a 2-year-old's night,” Christopher Abbott later said of Leonard Black. “Some things shouldn't be underestimated, and the power of kindness is one of those things.”
Pass it on, brother, pass it on.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Black would want us to know. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at email@example.com or 910-624-1961.