About 150 family members, friends, and community members came together on Sunday afternoon to celebrate the life of Leon Lawrence, a man who had touched countless kids, college students, and families before he passed away this month.
Mr. Lawrence came out of retirement just last summer to take the role of executive director at the Southside Community Center, a community organization dating back over 80 years that “serves as a beacon for the residents of the Southside community and beyond through a mission to affirm, empower, and foster the development of self-pride among the African American citizens of greater Ithaca.”
“One of our first projects was preparing for Juneteenth,” said Dr. Nia Nunn at the memorial, of “his dedication and commitment to helping us as an agency.”
“Leon was a man of energy and passion,” said Seth Peacock. “This was a man whose ‘retirement’ was to serve as director of Southside.”
Before taking that new role last summer, he was assistant director of Cornell’s Office of Minority Educational Affairs, now part of the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, and director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusiveness in Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art & Planning. He had also served as a chair of the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission, and was one of two main organizers of a Black Lives Matter march in October 2015 that brought together Ithaca community and campus groups.
“I didn’t realize my dad had such a large footprint in this community,” Leon’s son Daniel said last week to Cal Walker, who emceed yesterday’s memorial. At the close of the memorial celebration, Daniel told the assembled crowd, “He was the same man behind closed doors as he was in public. I’ve been humbled by the outpouring of love and support.”
“These aren’t just tears of sorrow, but tears of joy and appreciation,” said Sara Xayarath Hernández, unable to keep her promise not to cry.
“He was engaged in the art of volunteering,” said Karen Baer. “Leon did not do much sitting,” though he “sat” on many local boards. “Leon led a life of consequence, a life that benefited all of us,” she added. “I will miss him dearly.”
“As a board member, he made sure we always kept our clients’ and staff’s interests front and center,” said Karl Graham of Alternatives Federal Credit Union.
“As I look back, I can’t remember a day when Leon wasn’t smiling,” says Eric Acree. “He treated students as if they were his own. The world is a better place because Leon was here. He was a tireless warrior and an agent of change.”
“I can’t get too sad, because he won’t let me. He liked to see people happy. He believed in celebration,” said Marcia Baum.
“Leon was a man who lived with a purpose. His purpose was to give of himself, in a way that was powerful and humble,” said Victor Younger.
“He was a tremendous ally of the American Indian program at Cornell. I always knew he would have my back,” says Jane Mt. Pleasant.
“He was so excited and his smile was so big,” says Eloise Barrett of day his Southside post was announced. She remembers asking him, “Do you know what you’re in for?”
“Leon kind of took on the role of our sagacious, wise elder,” says Rahk Lash of the local Boys2Men program.
“If it hadn’t been for Leon, I wouldn’t be here today. I made it through hard work and encouragement and inspiration,” says Derrick Barrett.
“He taught me that you could be mentally imposing instead of physically imposing. I’m glad he was in my life,” says Leon’s nephew Kenny.
Charitable gifts in Leon’s memory may be made to the Southside Community Center, 305 South Plain Street, Ithaca, New York 14850, or Hospicare, 172 East King Road, Ithaca, New York 14850.
Here is the obituary as presented at the memorial:
Leon Lawrence, 74, of Ithaca, NY, passed away peacefully on Friday, January 20, 2017 surrounded by his loving family.
Leon was born in Atlanta, GA on June 8, 1942, to Wilbur and Frances Lawrence. The family later moved to Peekskill, NY, where Leon spent most of his childhood and graduated from high school. He was a veteran of the US Air Force and a graduate of the University of Vermont (UVM), where he earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
He married Diana Rosiello in 1967 in New York City. They lived and raised their family in Vermont for 35 years. Over the course of his career, Leon worked for IBM, the University of Vermont, and Cornell University. In July 2016, he became the Executive Director of Southside Community Center in Ithaca.
Leon was always ready and eager to help wherever and whenever he could. He served many communities, organizations, committees, students, and individuals throughout his life. He was a very sweet and kind man. His work was his true passion, and he was Patti LaBelle’s biggest fan.
Survivors include: his wife of 50 years, Diana; sons Noel (Lihua), Eric, and Daniel; daughter Gabriella; sister Betty Kilpatrick (Barry); brothers Robert (Renee) and Frank (Eloise); grandchildren Leon Scott and Katherine; sister-in-law and brother-in-law Linda and Vic Conte; many nieces and nephews; a large extended family; and adoring dog, Bella.
A celebration of Leon’s life will be held on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at The Space at Greenstar Co-op, 700 W. Buffalo St., Ithaca, NY, at 2:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Leon’s memory to Southside Community Center, 301 S. Plain St., Ithaca, NY 14850, or Hospicare, 172 E. King Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850.
Posthumous Award. Leon will be recognized for his life of service at the annual County Office for the Aging banquet in May, where he will be posthumously presented with the 2017 COFA Volunteer Award. Leon was enthusiastically nominated for this award by the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights prior to any knowledge of his passing.