Members of the Military Salute Cremation Society of Illinois pay tribute to the late Leon Conner, 96, during his memorial service last Saturday, October 18th. Below, left, a member of the John H. Shelton Post 838 salutes Conner one last time. Photos by Michael Romain for the Village Free Press.
Monday, October 20, 2014 || By Michael Romain
MAYWOOD | Hundreds gathered inside of Second Baptist Church last Saturday to remember the life of a man who former Maywood Mayor Don Williams said is “perhaps without peer” in the village and whose death Pastor Esther Mitchell, in her eulogy, compared to a giant tree that had fallen and shaken the forest floor.
Leon Conner, who died on October 5th at the age of 96, was among the country’s last surviving veterans of World War II. According to data released by the Veteran’s Administration, there are only about 1.2 million living World War II veterans out of the estimated 16 million Americans who served in that war. Those survivors, however, are dying at a rate of approximately 550 per day.
Conner was born August 26, 1918, to Marvin and Selma Thomas Conner in Carthage, Texas. He was the youngest of four children: Vate Fite, Inez Jones and Herese Bowman. In Carthage, he met his childhood sweetheart, Odie Marie Leary.
In April 24, 1942, about one year after moving to Maywood, he married Odie in Chicago. They would eventually have six children — Joy, Alva, Thomas, Ralph, Marilyn and Melody. In August 1942, Leon was drafted into the U.S. Army and would serve with distinction, rising to the rank of First Sergeant. In that position, he was responsible for training more than 120 soldiers.
In 1945, Conner was honorably discharged and returned to Maywood to start an active civic life that would last for another 60 years. A machinist for Commonwealth Edison by day (he would retire after 43 years with the company), in his down time, Conner was a founding, ranking or regular member of the Maywood N.A.A.C.P., the Maywood Bataan Committee, the Maywood Zoning Committee and the American Legion Post 838; treasurer of the Christian Action Ministry; committeeman for P.L.C.C.A.; and the co-founder of H.A.N.D. (the Home and Neighborhood Defenders Society).
Leon Conner’s son Ralph, with whom he would found H.A.N.D.S., served as Mayor of Maywood from 2001 to 2005. Conner-Heise Memorial Park, located on 10th and Washington, is named in honor of Thomas Heise and Conner’s son Thomas, who died in the Vietnam War.
“We all benefitted from this man being here in this community,” said former Mayor Williams. “All of us — individually and collectively. The best tribute we should make to him would be to emulate some of those characteristics he exhibited.”
Up until the last months of his life, Conner was actively involved in civic affairs. He regularly checked his email and flooded the mailboxes of newspaper columnists, local politicians and even presidents with eloquent, handwritten appeals on a range of issues — from immigration to urban affairs.
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Built like a bull, Conner had the organizing mind of a general and the inquisitiveness of a philosopher. He was an avid reader of large books of history and often carried around pieces of paper, on which he’d jot down information that substantiated his famous board meeting filibusters.
Just several months ago, he was at the podium before the Board of Trustees making a lucid case for why the police department might need to rethink its purchase of a used vehicle without a warranty. He spoke well beyond the allotted three-minute limit, but no one dared interrupt.
“At board meetings, Mr. Conner always sat in the front row,” said Maywood Trustee Audrey Jaycox, a longtime friend of the Conner family.
“If he came to a board meeting, he had something he was going to tell you, because it was on his mind, [which] was sharp — even at 96…He didn’t care if you were black or white. He didn’t care if you were the mayor…or the clerk, deputy clerk or trustee — he was going to give you a piece of his mind, but he would always give it to you with the smile that you see right there. And he’d say, ‘You have a nice day’.”
Jonette Greenhow, the Maywood Board’s executive assistant and a former deputy clerk for the village, said that Conner would often encourage her to show her feelings more. As deputy clerk, she would sit in the front area just below the elevated panel of board members, and take notes on village meetings, which are televised.
“He’d say, ‘Jonette, turn to the camera so the people can see what’s on your mind,’” she said. Greenhow, whose family is close to the Conners, said that she talks with her face and would often cover it with her hands during the meetings so as not to reveal her emotions.
“I’d have my hands up and he’d say, ‘If only they knew what’s on your mind,’” she said, prompting laughter from the mourners.
Former Maywood Police Chief James Stenson said that Conner, a personal friend, kept watch over his area of Maywood with the same diligence and thoroughness he brought to training the more than 120 soldiers under his command.
“If you knew him when he rode his bicycle and smoked his pipe, you know he took care of the third district, so I didn’t have to worry about anything,” Stenson said. “He was that extra policeman in this community for everything that went astray — and I had to know about it.”
Retired pastor Esther Mitchell, the co-founder of James Memorial A.M.E. Church in Maywood, said that she was approached by Leon Conner himself about a year before he died. He told her that he wanted her to do his eulogy. As much a general in death as he was in life, his directive was carried out without a hitch by his three surviving daughters — Joy, Melody and Marilyn.
Mitchell compared the strapping, six-foot-something 96-year-old war veteran and disciplinarian to ‘tall timber.’
When a tree that prominent falls, she said, the whole forest floor reverberates. Leon Conner shook Maywood in a way that few other residents have before or since. This town is still shaking now that he’s gone.
Conner was preceded in death by his parents, his siblings (except one, 100-year-old Vater Fite, who sat in the front-row at her brother’s memorial); his wife, Odie Marie; and three children, Thomas Earl, Ralph Wesley and Alva Cheryl. He is survived by his loving daughters: Joy, Marilyn and Melody; thirteen grandchildren; fourteen great-grandchildren; and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and friends. VFP