Freeman Leonard, 98, of Vineyard Haven, died on Feb. 17 at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He is survived by his wife of 76 years, Constance Downs Leonard, and his two children, Cynthia Schilling of Vineyard Haven, and Peter Leonard and his wife Yolanda of Spencerport, N.Y. He was also blessed with five grandchildren, John Schilling, Gretchen Westgren, Melissa Gold, Andrew Leonard, and Sarah Leonard; as well as six great-grandchildren, Jenev and Jaron Schilling, Jessica and Carl Westgren, and Ryann and Tad Gold.
Freeman, "Papa," was born on May 29, 1909 at his family home in Harvard. His father, Alpha Freeman Leonard, and his mother, Lucinda Estelle Phinney, also welcomed to their family Marion, Eloise, Howard and James Phinney, all of whom predeceased him.
When Freeman was seven years old his family moved to the Vineyard upon the recommendation of his pediatrician. His parents owned and operated Leonard's Garage, formerly Ben David's Motors now Jim's package store, for 45 years, where many young Vineyard children would often visit for their fix of penny candy.
He attended the Oak Bluffs Public School and received his high school diploma, along with 12 other students in his class, in 1926. He continued his education at the Michigan State Automobile School as well as the Firestone Rubber Factory and the Cooper Battery Training Center. He then joined the United States Army Air Corps, but shortly after he enlisted he was diagnosed with polio. He spent six months at Walter Reed Hospital and then was shipped to Panama, but not before he met Charles Lindbergh at Bollin Field in Washington, D.C. While stationed in Panama, he actually worked on Lindbergh's plane, the Spirit of St. Louis. Also while stationed in Panama, he saw Admiral Byrd and his ship The City of New York. He left the military in 1929 and traveled to Boston to work as a mechanic. While working in Boston and traveling back and forth to the Vineyard, he was reacquainted with a young girl he had met back in the fifth grade. Constance "Connie" Downs was attending school in Boston. Their first date was on April Fools Day in 1930 and they were married on Oct. 1, 1931.
He spent his years working hard to support his young family - a task that in his own words was the secret to survival: "one had to be prepared to do different jobs to earn a living." Some of his many jobs include: Leonard's Garage, Packer Fuel, Winterbottom Construction, Island Movie Theater projectionist (24 years), Van Ryper's ship model building (19 years), Vineyard Models, Inc., Pyrofax Gas Company and Town of Tisbury Building/Zoning Inspector (13 years). While employed at Van Ryper's, they were commissioned to build 2,300 to scale models of the entire Japanese fighting fleet. They were used by the American military pilots for training prior to Pearl Harbor. The models were so effective in helping American pilots identify ships, that once we were in full-scale war, the Navy commissioned even more models. They were eventually approached by the United State Maritime Commission to build models of every type of merchant ship built on the American shipyards during war time. During peak war time, they had 60 employees who worked in two shifts, 24 hours a day, every day. Pursuing many lines of work enabled him to provide for his family and to afford him time to participate in town affairs, such as finance and school committees, Boy Scouts and other activities. Time never hung heavy on his hands.
According to Freeman, the best time of his life was during the depression. He enjoyed spending good times with good friends. Few had luxuries, but all had the ability to live well off the land. His friendships meant a lot to him and his lack of money was never a factor. He took great pleasure in nature, gardening and photography. Even after his retirement, he would begin his day at sunrise and not end until sunset. Even well into his 90s, he could be found up on his roof cleaning his chimney.
When asked about his most positive achievements his reply was the Tisbury Senior Center. He had been Chairman of the Council of Aging for years, and was therefore happy to spearhead the effort. It all began in 1987 with filing for grants, permits, and applications. In May 1989, the Town of Tisbury voted to designate a parcel of land. He then became Chairman of the Design and Selection Committee and in October 1990 ground was broken. Almost two years later, the center was opened. In 1993, he received a letter from Eric Turkington, State Representative, proclaiming him as Tisbury's Senior Citizen of the Year. This was an honor that he was very proud of.
Whenever a need arose, he was always anxious to be of help in any way, whether friend, neighbor, family or total stranger. Freeman, although considered a "transplant," was truly an "Islander" at heart.
Services were held on Feb. 23 at the First Baptist Church, Spring St., Vineyard Haven, officiated by the Rev. Roger Spinney. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the First Baptist Church Building Fund, P.O. Box 806, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568.
Arrangements are under the care of the Chapman, Cole and Gleason Funeral Home, located in Oak Bluffs. Visit ccgfuneralhome.com for online guest book and information.