January 13, 2012

Chuck Leonard, R.I.P.

Category: News — Ira @ 6:00 pm

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Say not in grief, “He is no more,” but live in
thankfulness that he was.

—Hebrew proverb
________________

Tuesday night. After supper. I was settled in at my computer, ready to work on the draft of the blog for this week. My cell phone clattered. Titus Wagler. He hasn’t called much, lately. We connect now and then, but either he was at the phone shack at the end of his drive in Bloomfield and calling to chat. Or there was something else going on.

I answered. This is Ira. And Titus didn’t hem around, or anything. Told me the reason for his call. Chuck Leonard had been killed that evening, an hour or two before.

I reeled. No. I knew the man was old. In his eighties. But still. I just saw him right at six weeks ago. In Bloomfield, at my book signing.

“Was it an accident on the road?” That’s the first thought that hit me. Chuck had trouble with his eyesight the last, oh, decade or so. He worked as an Amish “taxi.” Hauled people around in his old van. I knew he had trouble seeing, and just figured maybe he’d run off the road or smashed into another vehicle.

“No,” Titus answered. “He was changing the oil on his truck, and somehow it rolled down and pinned him to the wall.

Changing the oil on his truck. An eighty-three year old man, who had been a mechanic for decades. Yeah. He’d done that thousands of times before. Still, this time it got him.

“Aaah.” I half groaned, half breathed. “Seems impossible. I guess it was his time.”

And Titus told me of how they had heard the sirens in the distance, heading west. Wondered what was going on. He had called an acquaintance in West Grove. Ronnie Harris, Chuck’s neighbor. Ronnie told Titus what had just come down. Chuck was still alive when the medics reached him. Spoke to them. But then, he just left. And now he’s gone.

We talked a bit more, then. Half-stunned, I thanked Titus for thinking of me right away. And for calling with the news. We hung up.

And I think of the grieving family, and I see them all as they were way back when. Chuck. His wife, Mrs. C. His daughter, Margie. And his sons, at least the ones I knew. Chuckie and Jamie. I see them all in the bustling flow of their lives when I first knew them. And remember so much of who he was. Chuck. Charles Leonard.

During the course of my long and often troubled journey, I have known very few people with a kinder heart. And I have known a lot of people. It wasn’t even a conscious thing, to him. I don’t know if he would even have considered himself kind. But he was. It was just a part of the essence of the man.

I know few details of his background. He came from somewhere west and south of Bloomfield. Appanoose County, I think. From a hardscrabble background. Where you worked, if you wanted to eat. Once in a while, he told me tales of how it was. And it was tough. He joined the Army during WWII, but never saw combat, thankfully. He married. Had children. Then divorced. Then met and married Margaret, a devout Catholic. And the kind and caring woman I always knew as his wife. He practically adopted Linda, Margaret’s daughter from a previous marriage. They had three children of their own, he and Margaret. Charles, Jr., forever known as Chuckie. Margie. And Jamie. I saw them grow into their teenage years. Listened to the tales they told in those turbulent years of their lives.

For years, Chuck and Mrs. C ran a truck stop close to the intersection of Rt. 63 and Rt. 2, west of Bloomfield. By the time my family moved to the area, though, they had opened the little café and repair garage in West Grove.

I didn’t hang around the café that much, for the first few years. Stopped in shyly now and then for a Mountain Dew or an ice cream bar. Mrs. C always smiled in welcome. I had no idea that one day she and her family would mean the world to me.

I had my first dealing with Chuck after Marvin Yutzy and I headed down to Florida in 1981. Sometime that summer, I think it was August, we headed back home for a few days to visit. In the old 1972 Cougar with the 351 Cleveland engine. On the way up, somewhere in Georgia, the 351 Cleveland started overheating. We pulled into a gas station along the interstate, a ramshackle place, and conferred with the bearded redneck mechanic.

He found the problem, some sort of hose that was clogged or something. And, of course, he had no parts to fix it. So the bearded mechanic ambled to a nearby tree, broke off a slim branch and sharpened it with his pocket knife. Unhooked the hose from the engine and forcefully pounded in the sharpened stick. Wherever the hose was taking the water, it didn’t matter much if it didn’t get there. That’s what the bearded one claimed. Marvin and I were extremely dubious, but we knew nothing of engines and such. Besides, the bearded one seemed confident, and he didn’t charge us a cent. So off we went. And, miraculously, we drove straight on through to Bloomfield.

That week, I stopped by to see Chuck. Clad in his old green, greasy coveralls, he greeted me cheerfully. And I asked him. Could he possibly rig up something less, well, primitive? So we could make it back to Florida. He opened the hood, leaned in and looked. Exploded in a high-pitched guffaw. “You got a stick stuck in your engine block,” he hollered. “Never seen anything like it before in my life. Oh, boy.” His high cackling laugh echoed through the little shop.

And then, talking all the while in a rambling flow of words, the man grabbed a section of hose and some fittings and got to work. In less than half an hour, he had everything where it should have been. But I had another problem. Marvin and I were traveling on a shoestring budget. Our normal state of living. You pretty much winged it, to get to where you were going. And our cushion of cash was very small. “How much?” I asked timidly.

I forget the total. Maybe thirty bucks or so. Whatever the amount, it wasn’t enough, for what he’d done. Still, I stammered nervously.

“Any way I could charge it and get the money to you later?”

“Sure,” Chuck said agreeably, as I sagged with relief. “But I’d really like to at least get paid for the parts. Twelve dollars.” I’m sure he figured that was all he’d ever see. I gladly paid him the $12, thanked him and left. He wished me a safe trip back to Florida.

And that was Chuck Leonard. Good-hearted. Kind. Even to a relative stranger like me. For all he knew, he might have never seen me again. Yet, he was always way beyond willing to help out, even if he probably figured he’d never see a cent for his labor. He got paid, though, for what he did for us. Marvin and I made sure of that. But how many other forlorn wanderers never got it done? I’m sure there were more than a few, throughout the years.

It was after we returned from Florida, settled in and joined the Amish church, that I “discovered” the café. Began stopping in, now and then. Quietly, nervously at first. But not for long. They all welcomed me, Chuck and his customers, as one of their own. Many a time over the years, Chuck retold the tale of how I had showed up with a pointed stick pounded into the engine of my car. He never could get quite finished without almost doubling over with laughter.

I couldn’t grasp it at the time, how much the café and its people meant to me. I just couldn’t. And the anchor of that place was solid. Chuck and Mrs. C. They held it together. Kept it going. Looking back, I’m sure there was never quite enough money to go around, never quite enough to pay all the bills. But somehow, they managed to make it work. All while raising their three children.

After Titus had his devastating accident in 1982, all my friends at the café rallied around me. Comforted me as best they could. And after Titus returned home from rehab, Chuck decided to step in. He offered to come and get Titus once a week, and take him to the café to hang out for a few hours. Just to get away. And somehow, strangely, Dad didn’t fuss much, if at all. And so Chuck came, every week. Rolled in with his old car. Always cheerful and excited. We pushed a smiling Titus out in his wheelchair and helped him into the car. Sometimes I went along, sometimes Chuck took him by himself. A few hours later, they returned. All that took time and effort from Chuck’s busy day. And yet, he never asked for a cent. And we, of course, never thought to offer.

And the day came when I left Bloomfield for good. For many years, I’d keep in touch with what was going on by calling now and then. Chatting with Mrs. C. Of who was doing what. And who said what. Gradually, though, I drifted away. But always, when I returned to Bloomfield to visit, usually over Christmas, one of my most important stops was at the home of Chuck and Margaret Leonard.

His little shop burned to the ground, around 1990 or so, I think it was. Or thereabouts. From this distance, the years kind of blend together. He had no insurance. Lost all his tools. People from the community, including the Amish, rallied and built a new shop for him. But he never recovered from that loss. It never was the same. He bought a fuel tanker truck and began hauling and selling heating oil and gasoline. Delivered to most of the Amish, at one time or another. He was well known before in and around West Grove. But after he began delivering fuel, he became a legend in the entire Bloomfield Amish community.

And here I want to say that Chuck was widely known and well-loved by the English people in Bloomfield, too. He was simply a local legend. But I come from the Amish world, so that’s the anchor of my perspective. I am in no way detracting from what and who he was to his myriad English friends and customers.

His old fuel truck was soon a familiar sight on the gravel roads around Bloomfield. He puttered about, faithfully making his deliveries. If he ever had a bad day, you wouldn’t know it. Always smiling, always cheerful. Genuinely friendly to all. And in the cab of his truck, he carried a bucket full of magical goodies for the children. A bucket full of bubble gum.

They always waited in small clusters to meet him as his truck rolled in. Most of those children are now young adults or older. And their memories pour forth. On the day Chuck was scheduled to deliver, they made sure to lurk about, waiting. Tousle-haired, and barefooted. And he always rumbled in, smiling and waving. He chatted with them, treated them with respect, took the time for them. Gave them gobs of bubble gum. And they loved him for it.

And as they entered their Rumspringa years, the troubled ones confided in him. Told him of how it was. Of their confusion, of their rage and pain and fear. He listened sympathetically. And he spoke compassion to them. Don’t you think you should wait to leave until you are at least eighteen? Sixteen is really young. It’s a tough world out there. You want to be careful with your choices. I’m sure they didn’t always follow his advice, the troubled Amish youth of Bloomfield. Maybe not even often. But they heard him speak.

I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for certain, but I’m sure his home was always open to those youth. Even after the café was closed and torn down in the mid-90s. That’s just who he was. He never had a reputation of actually helping them leave. He was too wise to do that; he knew their parents, too, and could see things from both sides. But the youth knew he was their friend.

You never really sense it in the moment, the impact a person has. Only in a time like this, in retrospect, does the true measure of a man like Chuck emerge. He never had much in material things. But he possessed great treasures in his heart. And he freely shared those treasures. There’s hardly a person, Amish or English, around Bloomfield who doesn’t have his or her own favorite “Chuck” story. Fondly recalled and fondly told. And there are a lot of Amish and ex-Amish men and youth out there who owe this man a great debt. A debt that can never be repaid.

He’s gone now. But we can honor the memory of who he was, those of us who knew the man. And experienced first-hand his heart of kindness and compassion.

You were there for me, Chuck Leonard. You and your family. Way back when I was struggling in despair through the tough slog of daily life. Searching for something beyond, something I could not find. You opened to me the doors of your heart and your home. You didn’t question the how or why of it, you just reached out and embraced a lost and traumatized Amish youth. Not to guide, necessarily. But just to be there, to offer a safe haven. And here I speak to all the world of my debt, my deep gratitude to you.

The Lord of the whole universe now holds you in His hands. And may you know in all eternity the true fullness of Christ’s love. Which is a deeper measure of the same love you gave so freely on this earth, to even the least of those around you.

Charles (Chuck) Raymond Leonard. 1928-2012. Rest in peace.

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(25 Comments) »

  1. Ira: Sorry for the loss of a dear friend. Chuck was one those people that cross your path in your journey thru this life that was a real blessing to you. We don’t meet people like Chuck just by chance.

    Comment by Stehman Jr. Warren — January 13, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

  2. That’s quite a loving tribute Ira. You were blessed to know Chuck, and I’m sure he was blessed to know you too. You’ll see him again, I’m sure.

    Comment by Kelly Hunt — January 13, 2012 @ 7:04 pm

  3. I remember the bubble gum!

    Comment by jason yutzy — January 13, 2012 @ 7:14 pm

  4. Ira: Sorry about the lost of your friend Chuck. Chuck is one of those people that cross our path that is a blessing to us in our journey thru life. We don’t come upon people like Chuck by chance.

    Comment by Warren — January 13, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

  5. It sounds as if you were all blessed to know him. And what an inspiration that we would live our lives that we can touch those around us in a profound way.

    Comment by Rachel — January 13, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

  6. What you write is true. I was among the next generation of Amish youth. Chuck went out of his way to help us out, did favors he really would not have needed to do, but that is who he was.

    Comment by David — January 13, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

  7. What a wonderful tribute to your friend. I’m sure his family will want a copy of this~

    Comment by Rachel — January 13, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

  8. It was always an exciting time when the kerosene tank ran low. Chuck was coming soon, with his cheerful chatter and his bubble gum. We mourn the loss of this great man, but are thankful for the opportunity to spend a few minutes with him at the book signing in Bloomfield.

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — January 14, 2012 @ 12:03 am

  9. Ira-Thank you so much for such a beautiful tribute for my Grandpa Leonard. He was such a major influence on my life like he was for so many others. I long for the old days at the cafe with Grandpa working in the garage and my Mom and Grandma cooking in the kitchen. Grandpa Leonard was like no other. He always made me feel like I was loved. I will never have that feeling from any other the way it came from him. The loss I feel in my heart cannot be described. My life will never be the same. It is hard to see past what happened to him, but I will try hard every day not to remember the end but instead try to remember ALL of the wonderful memories I have of him. Your blog tonight has helped me with that. Thank you.

    Comment by Lisa Swarts — January 14, 2012 @ 12:23 am

  10. Ira, words can not ever describe the love my father and family have for you. You were always a very special person in our lives. My father was a very special kind of man and I believe he has passed on his kind, loving, and ornery ways to many of us. Growing up in West Grove was a wonderful thing even if we all thought back then it was awful. We will always carry with us its wonderful ways. All my love to you and always stay in touch.

    Margie

    Comment by Margie — January 14, 2012 @ 12:55 am

  11. Grew up in Bloomfield and went to West Grove Methodist church right across from CHUCK’S CAFE! Thank you! Could not ask for a better description than that!!! Very well stated!!!

    Comment by John Hawkins — January 14, 2012 @ 1:49 am

  12. Don’t you wish there were more Chucks in this world? You are very lucky to have those memories to cherish.

    Comment by The pizzalady — January 14, 2012 @ 4:46 am

  13. Your tribute to Chuck is heartwarming. These are the kinds of people who weave bright color and strength into the tapestries of our lives. You did well distilling your memories and emotions.

    Comment by Rhonda — January 14, 2012 @ 10:30 am

  14. Mr Wagler, I have followed your blog since I read your book. Your writing has a quiet gentleness about it which my heart responds to. This tribute to this kind-hearted man equally touched my heart. I sense your loss and I am sorry for you, his friends and his family!!! My prayers are with you all in your loss.

    Judy

    Comment by Judy Bivens — January 14, 2012 @ 10:52 am

  15. Ira, You did a wonderful job writing about Chuck… He was a amazing man… his smiles,his jokes, and you never went hungry….. As a child I spent a lot of time at the Leonards’ house, the first thing when you got off the bus was to go get a snack….(not the normal snack but French fries, cheeseballs and if you were really hungry Margaret would make a cheeseburger too…And a pop from the glass bottles…. What a family and the memories to cherish….

    Kyndal

    Comment by Kyndal — January 16, 2012 @ 10:21 am

  16. I’ve never written on a blog before so I hope I’m doing this the right way. Like others, I started reading your blog after I finished and thoroughly enjoyed your book. It made me really wonder about your day to day life and what you thought was missing. I know I’m relooking at my original thoughts of what the lifestyle was like. It always seemed so perfect to me but then I wasn’t living it. I kept thinking about what I read for quite a few nights after I finished the book. I’ll probably have to read it again.

    Aside from that, I wanted to say how fortunate you and others in the Bloomfield area were to have a wonderful friend and confidant like Mr. Leonard. I will have a grandson born on Monday (Jan 23rd) and he is already named Charles. I hope he’ll be known for his great character just like Mr. Leonard. Thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Suellen — January 22, 2012 @ 4:36 pm

  17. I have just found your blog, so ill try and drop by it when i can. Richard from Amish Stories

    Comment by Amish Stories — January 26, 2012 @ 7:12 pm

  18. What a wonderful tribute to Mr. Leonard. I grew up in Bloomfield many years ago. I so enjoyed reading about a man I didn’t know. He truly was very special and you with others are lucky to have known him and called him your friend. I have heard similar words used from people around Davis County after Mr. Leonard’s death.

    I just started reading your book tonight and found out about your blog. I will be revisiting, I admire your ability to put into words your feelings and thoughts.

    Comment by Connie Phillis — February 3, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

  19. Ira, I don’t know if I am at the right spot on this computer to tell you I just finished your book “Growing Up Amish”. What a wonderful, exciting, fabulous memoir. It makes me want to start writing my own. You certainly do have the gift of writing (comes natural, from your Dad I suspect). What a journey! Thanks for sharing it with so many people. We have some dear Amish friends in Millersburg, Ohio whom we go to see every year. I love their life style, as it reminds me so much of mine growing up in rural N.Y. We met about 15 years ago on a visit to Ohio, mailing a post card. That’s another story in itself. Keep writing, I know there must be more.

    So sorry about Chuck, but you will meet again on the other shore, I am sure. Blessings that you found the Lord! He is faithful to the end.

    Linda Gearhart,
    Greensboro, N.C.

    Comment by Linda Gearhart — February 4, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  20. That is such a great tribute! And I’m SO happy for you that you got that gift of seeing him not too long ago. Reading the comments from his family members speaks volumes – those were the ones that knew him best. People can appear one way to others but be a very different person to those they’re closest to. Well, sounds like he was every bit as wonderful as he seemed.

    I know I must live in a hole because just this week I discovered the phrase of “To be, rather than to seem”, which I think is N.C.’s motto, but anyway, I just loved it and this tribute shows that Chuck really WAS the great guy that he seemed to be. So sorry for the loss.

    Comment by Bethrusso — February 5, 2012 @ 5:53 pm

  21. Ira, my beautiful friend and brother, thank you. Your words sum up my father and your dear friend. He was a very caring, thoughful man and he touched so many lives. He had his little quirks like we all do, those little quirks made dad who he was. We will all miss him terribly, but we have so many memories of him to make us all smile, even on the worst of days. I will wear his name proudly. Thank you my friend…much love to you!

    Charles R. Leonard II (Chuckie)

    Comment by Charles R. Leonard II — February 9, 2012 @ 11:59 am

  22. Ira, I read your book twice. I appreciate what you wrote and also there are an awful lot of similarities between your life and mine. I will be in touch with you later, and I also want to tell you that I’m very sorry to hear that your friend Chuck died. Hoping to hear from you soon.

    –Homer E. Schmucker

    Comment by Homer E. Schmucker — February 9, 2012 @ 8:30 pm

  23. Ira,

    I, too, just finished reading your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and have now connected with your blog.

    I am a lifelong resident of Davis County. For several years, my dad, Wayne Sample, owned a farm southeast of Pulaski, but had to sell for health reasons in ’71, which was sold to Andrew Shrock, as I recall, who had just moved to the area. My dad ended up being the owner of Don’s Repair Shop in Bloomfield, after purchasing it from his brother, and had many Amish customers over the years because of his business, some of whom became quite “familiar”.

    Then again, approximately 8 years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting your mother and father personally through my former place of employment, and many other Amish in that setting, as well.

    I & my husband also, remember Chuck Leonard. We first met him at Mary’s Midway Cafe, when they had opened a second restaurant on the south side of the square, just 2 doors to the west of my dad’s business (which was in the Latimer Building). Chuck always had a smile, a kind word and, like you said, there had to of been days when he didn’t feel so much like smiling (which reminds me of my own dad). Chuck was genuine, in every sense of the word. His laugh and his storytelling are what really stand out for me. And yes, I have no doubt that there are many in our community that will miss him, but cherish each and every memory made with him.

    I do so look forward to what is in store for you and the gift that God has blessed you with in your writing. I will be definitely be reading more of your past blogs and watching for new updates!

    Comment by Ellen Schumaker — April 12, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

  24. Isn’t it amazing how one person can make such a difference?

    Comment by Francine — November 13, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

  25. Ira, as we just passed the 1 year anniversary of dad’s passing yesterday I wanted to take the time to read your tribute again.

    Life has many twists and turns, hills and valleys, in which we try to make the most of.

    Every time I watch a football game, I remember back when you would stop by on a Monday night or Sunday afternoon for a quick glance at a game or an update of scores.

    We have a choice of those that we keep in our lives and those that we let go. Thank you for choosing to keep my parents in your life. Your friendship has meant a lot to them.

    Take care. Jamie

    Comment by Jamie Leonard — January 11, 2013 @ 9:00 pm

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