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Cape Fear COG recognizes Leonard with 2017 Regional Champion award

The Cape Fear Council of Governments (COG) recently presented Tabor City’s Al Leonard with the group’s prestigious Lynwood Norris Regional Champion award for 2017.

Leonard has been town manager in Tabor City for all but one year since 1987, but he also serves as a part-time consultant for the towns of Fair Bluff, Cerro Gordo, Brunswick and Boardman. He has also pitched in to help Chadbourn when they have been in between town managers.

It was Leonard’s assistance to Fair Bluff, Boardman and Cerro Gordo in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew that made him the hands-on winner of this year’s award, the first time the honor has gone to someone who is not an elected official.

The Town of Tabor City nominated Leonard for the COG’s manager of the year award, which Leonard already had received twice before, and Cape Fear COG Executive Director Chris May said the decision to bestow the “champion” award on him instead was an easy one.

May said that, after Hurricane Matthew, the mayors of Fair Bluff, Boardman and Cerro Gordo asked if there was any way to recognize Leonard for his efforts following the devastating storm. “Knowing all that Al went through trying to help the folks in western Columbus County after the flood, we decided that he was the obvious choice, even though he isn’t an elected official.”

The award is named for the late Lynwood Norris who, as a longtime Columbus County commissioner, served for decades as chairman of the COG’s board. Leonard was particularly moved at receiving it because he and Norris had a very close personal relationship.

“It meant a lot to me to get that award,” Leonard said. “Lynwood and I were good friends. We talked on the phone every day for 10 or 15 years. We called each other and would try to figure out how to make progress for the people. To win an award that was named for him was very special to me.”

Tabor City Mayor Royce Harper could not be reached to comment for this story, but Fair Bluff Mayor Billy Hammond, Brunswick Mayor Nancy Hill and former Fair Bluff Mayor Randy Britt praised Leonard highly.

“He has been a great asset,” Hammond said. “He has helped us in so many ways, obtaining grants in these trying times and then doing all the paperwork that goes with those grants. Without Al, the town would have been lost after Hurricane Matthew.”

He added, “I don’t know how the man does everything he does and keeps straight in his head all that’s going on.” Hammond joked. “I told Al the other day that he’s going to lay down one night and wake up dead the next morning because he’s got so much on him. I don’t know what these small towns in Columbus County are going to do when he retires. We would be in a huge financial bind, more than we’re already in, if it wasn’t for Al.”

Brunswick’s Mayor Hill said, “Al is one of a kind. He puts his all into everything he does. If he gives you his word, you can count on it.”

She continued, “He is as dedicated to the town as if it were his personal business. He sees to it that, whatever we need, our needs are met. I don’t know how to put into words just how great Al is.”

Like Hammond, Hill can’t comprehend how Leonard juggles all his responsibilities. “He gets up at 4 o’clock every morning and makes his rounds, first to Fair Bluff and then he’s in Brunswick at 6:30 or 7 o’clock. Somehow, he manages to sandwich Cerro Gordo and Boardman in there, too, and then he goes straight to Tabor City. A lot of nights he will call me at 9:30 or 10 o’clock and he’s on his way back home after being up since 4 that morning. I don’t see how his wife puts up with him,” she laughed.

Hill added, “Not only is he such a great servant to the municipalities he helps out, but he is such a great Christian person, too. He’s a devoted family man. He loves his girls, and I’ve noticed that if he sees people in need – you never would know this from him, because he never shares about it – he makes sure those peoples’ needs are met. That’s living the Christian life.”

Britt, the former mayor of Fair Bluff, concurs. “He means so much to so many people and to so many organizations besides the municipalities. I know of no one who has given more of himself to help others, especially governments that are trying to get by and survive. It’s hard to fathom all that he does.”

The COG’s Chris May said, “The most impressive thing about Al is not only that he’s an outstanding administrator, but that he takes to heart his role as a servant of others. That is evident in all the places that he works. Nobody can take on that kind of workload unless they genuinely care.”

May said that, although he is amazed at the number of towns Leonard helps, he also is amazed at his devotion to his family. “He always puts them first. He’s one of those rare people you come across in your lifetime. There are very few like him. I wish we could clone him because we could use more like him.”

May said the award was established and named for Norris because the longtime Columbus County commissioner was someone who always did things to benefit beyond his local boundaries and, instead, worked for the greater good of the entire region.”

“We named that award for Lynwood because he was the epitome of a caring public servant. I had forgotten how close Al and Lynwood were until Al said afterward that it meant so much to him to receive an award named after his good friend.”

The Cape Fear COG plans and administers a variety of federal, state and local programs in Columbus, Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender Counties.

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