He changed the banks of the river

REV. DR. MARCELLUS JULIAN LEONARD Sept. 19, 1939-Aug. 3, 2018
He changed the banks of the river

It’s a near certainty that at some point in our lives, each of us meets someone whose impact on us is profound. I am not talking about our grandparents. I am talking about someone who arrives as a complete stranger and leaves as a friend, a mentor, a confidant, as someone who has listened in times of doubt and helped us, without judging, work through those troubles. A person, in brief, whose impact changes the banks of the river and alters the course of our lives.

For me, that person was Marcellus Leonard, or more properly, Dr. Marcellus Leonard, professor of composition and rhetoric, of poetry and poetics, of novels and plays. He was a gifted poet with an ear for phrasing born in the black jazz and gospel traditions so all-encompassing during his boyhood. To that he added a scholar’s care for clarity and an artist’s sensitivity to feelings. His poetry was perfectly wedded to his personality: emotionally gentle, yet exploratory, firm when necessary, always sensitive to the human condition.

But I did not meet him at University of Illinois Springfield where he taught. I met him in the mid-90s at a gathering of Springfield Poets and Writers, as he, a founding member, worked to build a community of writers in Springfield. We became friends quickly because of our interest in poetry and especially poetics, the theory of poetry. At the time, I was unhappy with the turn my life had taken and was critical of decisions I had made. Marcellus told me to stop: “That’s just the texture of life.” Such insightful advice, I soon learned, was his hallmark.

As our friendship deepened, I learned more about his life before academia, which had exposed him to the gamut of terrible experiences besetting black Americans during segregation. He grew up in Robbins, Illinois, a community where, he explained, African-Americans were forced to live if they were too poor for even the farthest reaches of Chicago’s South Side. As a child, he had to collect the coal that fell out of hopper cars along the railroad tracks to heat his home. The lack of economic and educational opportunities, and the stunted lives that were a result, cost his family dearly. That reality was made apparent when he drove a group of us, his white graduate students, around Robbins, pointing out the stoop where his brother had been killed, the house where his sister had been murdered. We were left speechless by the suddenly tangible tragedy of America’s bitter racist history.

Yet, Marcellus was not bitter. He escaped Robbins by joining the Air Force as a chaplain, seeing war-torn South Korea in the late 1950s. When his hitch was over, he was able to build a career as a mid-level manager in the Sears organization. But he wanted to be more and thought he could be, returning to school and earning his advanced degrees that culminated in becoming a professor of English.

As a professor, his motivation was to help students, not to fashion a career. His office door was always open (a metaphoric key to his personality), so that students felt invited to discuss their papers, their majors and their futures. His willingness to spend endless hours, repeatedly, working with them one-to-one came from the heart. He could have posted strict office hours and devoted his time to research in furtherance of his career. He did not. His openness about his own life – because his path had not been linear – allowed students (many older and returning to school later in life) to relate to him, seeing their potential reflected in his story. Once I became his student, I was there to witness the steady stream of former students returning to pay their respects to him. It was an extraordinary thing to see.

After his retirement, he became pastor of Heritage Free Will Baptist Church, a return to a calling he had felt since his boyhood in Robbins. So typical of him, he poured his time, money and soul into building his ministry. I visited him unannounced one Sunday morning, to his clear delight and open amusement, given our completely opposite religious points of view. But he had always had an ability to entertain such opposites without being offended, such was the scope of his humanity.

Marcellus, my friend with the poetic countenance – the broad smile and friendly eyes remarked by all who met him – led me and so many others to become better versions of ourselves. It will take a long time for all who knew him to accept the reality of his passing, a loss that leaves a gaping hole in Springfield’s creative and spiritual communities. Yet he would call upon us to understand: Although its banks and its course may change, the river remains immutable.

Brian L. Jackson, Ph.D. is a friend, former student, and colleague of Dr. Leonard. A longtime resident of Springfield, he now devotes himself to learning the art of micro-machining in service of the model railroad industry.

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