Theodis R. Leonard

Theodis R. Leonard, 78, retired principal of Chicago’s Paderewski School

Sleeping in on Sundays was not an option at Theodis R. Leonard’s house. Neither was dropping out of school.

Going to church and getting an education were as non-negotiable as the laws of physics for Mr. Leonard, a retired principal of Chicago’s Paderewski School.

He even managed to combine worship and education. He started a tutoring program at his church that helped hundreds of children grasp their homework, according to his daughter, Renee Turner.

“He never allowed us to say ‘can’t,’ ” she said.

Mr. Leonard, 78, of the Ashburn neighborhood on the city’s Southwest Side, died April 8 at Little Company of Mary Hospital.

He graduated from Mileston High School in Tchula, Miss., and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he learned to carry himself straight as a metal girder. His military bearing showed well in the sharp suits he bought at Carson’s, said his son, Curtis Leonard.

He wed his high school sweetheart, Essie Tate, and they moved to Chicago for a better life. Both became teachers.

During spring breaks, the family often piled into their Chevy Caprice to visit relatives in Mississippi. The children never knew why the family left home at 3 a.m. to start the trips. They didn’t understand why the Leonards never seemed to drop in at a gas station or restaurant, and why rest stops were by the side of the road.

Looking back, Turner said, the Leonard children realized their parents wanted to get to Mississippi before nightfall, when lonely Southern roads could become the stuff of nightmare for African Americans.

In Chicago, Mr. Leonard earned an associate’s degree in education from Crane Junior College, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in guidance and counseling from Chicago Teacher’s College, his daughter said. He received a certification from Governor’s State University that qualified him to be a principal, according to another daughter, Valerie F. Leonard.

In 1965, he began teaching at Chicago’s Gregory School. He stayed there for 25 years, also serving as a guidance counselor and assistant principal, Turner said. He was active in the Chicago Teachers Union during the era of two city labor leaders who were as powerful as steamrollers – and just as effective: Robert Healey and Jacqueline Vaughn.

In 1990, Mr. Leonard became principal of Paderew­ski School, his children said. He retired in 2001.

He headed the Laymen’s Organization for 30 years at his spiritual home, Carey Tercentenary AME Church. In addition to tutoring, the group started a baseball team, offered computer training and sponsored sewing classes that inspired an annual fashion show. Mr. Leonard also helped start a Black History Bowl quiz.

“He wanted everybody to know how to read, especially the black children, simply because it was [once] illegal for blacks to learn to read,” Turner said.

And it didn’t matter if school was interrupted by a Chicago blizzard, a teacher strike or summer break. His children’s education continued.

“I couldn’t go outside to play until I did my reader and answered the questions,” Turner said.

Because of her parents’ belief in education, “I think I can do anything I want,” she said. “And I do.”

Mr. Leonard worked to support the candidacies of Harold Washington and Barack Obama.

He enjoyed old-school gospel music by the Soul Stirrers and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. He drove a classic Monte Carlo with the hump on the back.

Other survivors include a son, Theodis R. Leonard Jr.; a brother, William H. Leonard; 10 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

A wake is scheduled from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Carey Tercentenary AME Church, 1448 S. Homan. His funeral service will follow.

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