OPINION — Fishing is different things to different people. For some it’s a waste of time, or it’s work, or just something to do when they have nothing to do. For others it’s ambrosia, a way to relax, and unwind, and heal. For Leonard, it was just a little more than that. It was life.
Leonard Wilson took the job as Mason’s elementary school principal twenty-five years ago, and quickly became the guy everyone liked. He was always smiling, always happy, always laughing and joking and having fun. Not that he didn’t do his job, and do it very well, but he was not defined by his occupation. No position, even one as important as running a school, could encompass Leonard. He was one of those rare people who saw through the facade, and realized that education was far more, and far more important, than schooling. Many will think that a ridiculous statement, as if education and schooling are the same thing. Actually, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between education and schooling is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Many times I watched Leonard with kids at school. He talked with them, joked with them, laughed with them, and played with them. Most importantly, he listened to them. When you’re seven no one listens to you, not really. But Leonard did. And the kids loved him. They ran to him in the hallways, grabbed onto his hands, followed him like the Pied Piper. He didn’t just pretend to care about the kids, he really did care. And they knew it. You can’t fool a child about that.
Leonard loved being a principal, because he loved the kids. He saw his job as a way to instill a love of learning in every child, to help them realize their potential, to show them that tomorrow would be what they made it. He was passionate about helping them attain their goals. But when the kids went home, Leonard went fishing. And he was good at it.
I’d always wanted to learn to fly fish, so Leonard offered to teach me. He said, “Now, I’m gonna take you to my honey hole, but you can’t tell anybody where it is. If you do I’ll have to kill you.” And then he laughed, like he did every time he said anything. And with Leonard, that wasn’t strange, like it would be with anyone else.
He taught me to cast a fly rod sitting down in a Jon boat, which he said most people couldn’t do, because they learned standing up. I caught my first largemouth on a little popper that evening, and I think Leonard was more excited than I was. He was teaching. And he was fishing. And he loved both.
He also loved cooking, and he was almost as good at that as he was at fishing. I was given a cookbook once that had been written by a world-famous Cajun chef, and Leonard noticed it in my office. It was about the size of the Webster’s Dictionary. He asked if he could borrow it, and when he brought it back a few months later, he told me that he’d tried every recipe in it. And it looked like he’d used the book to stir everything.
Leonard was as bad at shooting as he was good at fishing. I invited him along on a dove hunt once, and everyone got a limit except Leonard. I don’t think he managed to hit a bird. We gave him a hard time, but he just laughed. And then I did something I still feel guilty about. I played the old ‘here, shoot my pistol’ on him, and sandbagged him.
I had a Ruger .357 revolver, and I loaded it with five .38s and a .357, and handed it to him. The first few shots were the light loads, and when he touched off the big one, he wasn’t expecting it. That’s always good for a laugh, but I felt bad about doing it to Leonard. He was just too nice a guy.
We stayed in touch through the years after Leonard left Mason, and when he called me several months ago he sounded like the same old Leonard. Except he had bad news. He had stomach cancer, and he asked me to pray for him. Which I did, often. We talked about once a week, and he was planning to come see me in Arkansas this fall. He was going to take me fishing at some of his old honey holes. It was going to be just like old times. Something to look forward to.
A month ago, less than a week after our last talk, my mom called and told me Leonard had died. I knew it might happen, of course, but it was still a shock. He seemed to be doing well, and then, gone. No more talks, no visit, no fishing. He was just gone.
Everyone dies, eventually. We all know that. I just didn’t expect Leonard to do it. Not yet. He was too full of life, too optimistic, too happy. And when we talked, toward the end, he was always encouraging me, instead of calling to complain. He was still being Leonard.
As Clint Eastwood said when he buried his friend at the beginning of Outlaw Josie Wales, ‘I rode with him, and I got no complaints . . . ’