There is a sense in which the larger community of letters is a polity of sorts, or at the very least a spiritual institution that transcends particular parochial venues. So it is then that the unexpected passing of former Flyer writer and editor Leonard Gill this week is being mourned everywhere in Memphis and its environs that people are familiar with the work and the wide-ranging humanitarian concerns and the pure delight in language that were part and parcel of Leonard. In paying tribute to him, as we do here, leaning heavily below on words composed by his colleague Michael Finger, we are paying tribute to the best human traditions.
- Leonard Gill
Born in Memphis on June 18, 1953, Leonard graduated from Christian Brothers High School and then Rhodes College, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and earned a master's degree from Harvard University. During the summers, he studied at the University of Virginia and the University of Arizona. He remained in Boston for several years after college, but returned home to teach art history at the Memphis College of Art and work at the old Round Table bookstore.
A lover of books and the written word, Leonard was best known as a longtime writer, copy editor, and book reviewer for the Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine. It's impossible to imagine him without books tucked under his arm, and in one of many tributes, a colleague remembered, "He could capture the feel of a book and its author like no other." Another said, "Talking books with him was a reminder of how language is something to be loved."
He could read people pretty well, too, and for the various literary sections published by the Flyer each year, which required guest reviews, Leonard had a special knack for perfectly matching books with the interests of the staff and freelancers he recruited.
News of his death spread quickly through the Memphis literary and journalism community, and reaction to the sad news carried a common thread. Friends and colleagues recalled him in this way: "the sweetest man," "I loved Leonard, as I think everybody did," "Leonard lifted those near him," "always a gentleman," "what a great guy and a great teacher," "one of the best people," "kind, witty, and insightful," and "one of the most brilliant people I ever met."
If Leonard were reading this, in his self-effacing way he would no doubt comment, "Oh, surely they are talking about somebody else."
With his quiet, bashful demeanor, it's not unkind to say that Leonard didn't always stand out in a crowd. He wouldn't have wanted to. But anyone who spoke with him, even briefly, soon learned this was a person they wanted, and needed, to know better. And for those lucky enough to call Leonard Gill a friend, they were better because of it.