Hidden Hometown Heroes: Senior Olympian Leon M. McLean

by Crissy Neville

What is the quality of your intent? This query by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall is a bellwether of human behavior. Intentions without motivation and drive are like candles in the wind, flickering flames easily extinguished. Many intend to make much of their lives but fail to work in earnest, falling short where it counts. You know what they say about best-laid plans. 

That is unless your name is Leon M. McLean of Laurinburg — one whose plans come to fruition, and who looks at each day as a new opportunity to learn and to grow, to serve and to give. One who doesn’t yield to challenges, but looks them square in the eye. For McLean — a man of faith and family, a steward of learning and life — circumstance is not a deterrent nor age a drawback. This is just as true now, as he turns 91 and faces cancer of the cecum. With a treatment plan intact, he said of his condition and outlook, “I feel good and am positive I will beat this.” 

Whether in his current-day resolve to rack up miles around the track or laps in the pool in senior-game competitions, or in his life-long career as an educator where he touched the lives of thousands, McLean pours himself into the people and pursuits around him. Affectionately called “Neon Leon” at Scotia Village, his retirement community since 2015, the spirited McLean lives life to the fullest, a poster child of intentional living. McLean shared thoughts and reflections of his life with OutreachNC’s Crissy Neville recently in his Laurinburg home.

Crissy Neville: Mr. McLean, you have spent your life and career in this region of southeastern North Carolina. What that your intent?

Leon McLean: That’s right; I have spent my life here, as I wanted. I grew up just 10 miles away in the Midway community and had relatives and the good people of Robeson, Sampson, Scotland counties and Cumberland around me all my life. My granddaddy owned the Gaddis Mill at the damn on Chevelle Creek about 12 miles out, where I went to live when I was 10-years-old. My father died when I was four and when my mother remarried six years later, we moved near my grandparents. And being Scottish, my descendants on both sides were from Robeson and Scotland counties, with the first McLean arriving in the late 1700s. Now, my son and daughter live in Laurinburg. My late wife, Janice, and I picked Scotia Village for our retirement; unfortunately, she passed away in 2018. This area will always be home.

CN: That is a great lineage, Mr. McLean. Tell me about working here in your home region.

LM: I spent my career working in education. After finishing college at Lees-McCrae junior college and Appalachian State University in 1949, I worked at Massey Hill High School in Fayetteville for three years before leaving for the Korean conflict. In the service, I rose to be the Sergeant noncommissioned officer-in-charge of personnel and spent a year at the Army language school in California. Afterward, I continued my education at UNC-Chapel Hill in educational administration and subsequently worked as a principal in Lumberton, Garland, and Fairmont. From there, I was named Superintendent of Schools for the Fairmont City Schools for the next 27 years. I did work a few years after retirement at a private school in South Carolina and then fully retired in 1992. I loved it all but especially enjoyed being a principal where I got to work closely with the students. The students are my friends.

CN: I understand some of those friends are responsible for your award of The Governor’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine. True? 

LM: Yes, some of my former students got together to nominate me in 2014 for this honor, the highest civilian award in the state. It meant a lot to me. The group is from the Fairmont High School class of 1965, with whom I have kept in touch the closest. We bonded because they reached out more and involved me in their lives. I get letters from all over the country from them, and other classes, too, and because many chose to remain local, they come to visit me every few months, just to chat or to take me out to eat. These were my kids at Fairmont, where I was principal two years but superintendent 26. I knew all of them. We only had 3,000 students. I knew the background of most of the students and teachers and usually their parents and grandparents, too. 

CN: That is amazing how they have kept in touch! Has social media helped? 

LM: No, not at all. The students have kept up with me through word-of-mouth and asking around. I can tell you what, it is not through social media; I am not into electronics. I drive to First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont once or twice a month, but also attend here in Laurinburg. I also eat out a lot in Lumberton and the surrounding community and run into former students and colleagues a lot. It is a small and tight-knit community and surrounding few counties.

CN: Let’s turn to talk about the senior games. You are the most decorated and oldest senior competitor in Scotland County, which is amazing. Will you compete this year?

LM: Oh, yes, I intend to be at the North Carolina Senior Games in April. I don’t have any limitations, but I did take it easier in the Presbyterian Homes (PHI) Games series back in October — I skipped the races. I have participated in both events here in Laurinburg since I moved to Scotia Village five years ago. With PHI, we even travel to Greensboro and Raleigh to play.  It is a lot of fun; I love to compete and win, you know, but it’s also about staying active and fit. I have won medals every year in the events for swimming, volleyball, running, walking, in the football throw and standing long jump, in both the golf putting and corn hole tournaments, and more. Often, I get first or second place but always participation recognition. We practice several days a week. I will get on the treadmill, use the outdoor track and pool, and put in time on the putting greens. Scotia Village wellness director Ellen Bond keeps us moving, I am telling you. I never turn on that television (pointing across the room) until after 5 p.m. 

CN: That is so inspiring and sounds so fun. Have you always been athletic? 

LM: Tennis was our family sport, and I played that for years. My daughter Donne, who is 60 now, still plays in tournaments. I have played golf all my life, really, and I still play, but not as often. In college, I played football at Lees-McCrae and wrestled at Appalachian State, where I was undefeated in 1949 until I lost in the state finals. 

CN: And being a life-long learner, I am sure you are practicing mental fitness, too.

LM: I do. I love to read and attend classes. I was just in a life-long learning seminar yesterday and attended a lecture on music history back to the Greek and Roman days offered by a St. Andrews University visiting professor. I try to go to these and to help get the speakers. Scotia also organizes great trips, like the recent trip to the Boone area many of us went on and I helped plan. I try to serve in that way if I can. For years I was involved with the local civic clubs; my service is now here. 

Traveling is one of the best learning tools. Janice and I loved to travel. We went all over the U.S. to the national parks and the big cities and took many trips back to California where we lived during the war. We went on a whirlwind trip to Europe once. Now, I may take a road trip to the mountains myself or go on a family trip. My two children have given me four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and I spend time with them often. Last June, I went to Scotland for the first time with my son Steve and three grandsons; it was the trip of a lifetime. 

CN: What is your motivation that keeps you active in so many things?

LM: I enjoy all of the things I do. I solve crossword puzzles at night or play bridge. I like playing and calling bingo. I like to get out and go to the dining room and also go out to eat. I like to walk and talk to the other residents and lift them up. I put my full energy into my life here and to the people here, even though I am 91 years old. My new friend Carol and I like to go and just ride along. I love life and intend on living every day to its fullest.