A long-time downtown business owner died on Tuesday, and there is uncertainty regarding whether operations at the establishment will continue.
Walter Leonard was 87 when he succumbed to complications resulting from the flu and pneumonia on Tuesday.
He had run Leonard’s Jewelers since the 1950s and he represented the third generation of his family to run the company, which was founded by his father’s uncle, R.H. Leonard, in 1893. His father, Walter Leonard Sr., later purchased the company.
Through more than 120 years in business, the jewelry store occupied three different retail spaces in downtown Mount Airy, and it has been located at 221 North Main St. for about the past 75 years.
“We came here in 1943 and it was full of old women folding bandages for World War Two,” Leonard said after receiving an award from the city in 2011, according to The Mount Airy News’ files. “Daddy put a deposit on it, and we’ve been here ever since.”
The jewelry store is Mount Airy’s longest-standing retail business.
“I’ve been down here quite a while,” said Harris Greene, who owns Greene Finance Corp., another long-standing Mount Airy business. “He was here before me.”
“He was a downtown-oriented business owner who always did what he could to help others on Main Street,” added Greene.
Greene said the local jeweler was, at one time, one of the top-three jewelers in the area, and Greene had his own business dealings with Leonard.
“He did a lot of appraisal work for me,” explained Greene. “He will be sorely missed as a merchant downtown.”
Prior to working full time at the jewelry store, Leonard served his country in the U.S. Army.
He graduated from Mount Airy High School and enrolled at The Citadel, a military college in Charleston, South Carolina. Leonard attended classes there for three years as war clouds loomed in Korea. Three of his friends at the school had entered the service and were lost in the Korean Conflict, prompting a strong reaction by the young Mount Airy man who served in an on-campus infantry battalion.
“So I quit school and joined up,” he said of a journey that later led to his joining the family business downtown. “I came in 1953, right after I got out of the service.”
Ann Leonard, who worked with her father, called Walter Leonard “an icon on Main Street.”
“He never knew a stranger,” explained Leonard. “People loved him because of his honesty.”
She said her father’s health had declined in recent years, and even more so in recent months. He had been to the store some in January, but only a few times in February Even in sickness, however, the customers who supported Leonard’s Jewelers for so many years were at the forefront of his mind.
“Even as he declined, he didn’t want to let his customers down,” said Leonard. “People depended on him, and it worried him up until the end.”
Greene noted he was unsure of what’s in store for the future of Leonard’s Jewelers, and in 2011, Leonard stated he thought the jewelry store might die with him.
“I may be the last of the Mohicans,” Leonard said in an interview with The Mount Airy News.
Ann Leonard, however, said she wasn’t ready on Wednesday to discuss the future of the business, noting she and other members of the family will take the time to mourn the loss of a loved one before making any business decisions.
Leonard’s funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday at Moody Funeral Home, and his burial will follow at Oakdale Cemetery. The family will receive friends at the funeral home one hour prior to the service.
Andy may be reached at 415-4698.