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Leon Walker Herndon, Sr. was born December 31, 1938, the second child of the late Garland and Bertha Herndon, in Apex, N.C. He departed this life surrounded by loved ones on March 16, 2023 at his home in Cary, NC.
Leon’s start to life was somewhat challenging, as he was born prematurely, weighing only 3lbs. He would quickly make up for lost time, however, growing to far exceed the size of most of his peers.
Leon was educated in the Chatham County, NC school system, first as a student of his mother’s at Haywood Elementary, then eventually matriculating at Horton High School where he excelled in both academics and athletics.
Upon graduation, he would follow in his mother’s and older sister’s footsteps by attending Shaw University in Raleigh, NC. While at Shaw, Leon would continue to excel as a member of the football team, a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and as Senior Class President. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Biology in 1960, and subsequently attended North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central University), earning his Master’s degree in Education in 1962 and his Education Administration Principal's Certification at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Leon’s career in education took him throughout the state, starting as a teacher in St. Paul’s, NC, where he taught Science and won a State Championship as the Head Basketball Coach. He achieved his greatest victory, however, by marrying the love of his life, Shirley Wright, in 1963. A year later, they welcomed their first child, Lisa, to the family.
Following his tenure at St. Paul’s High School, Leon moved back to the Triangle area to become a Science teacher at Ligon High School in Raleigh. In 1968, in the newly integrated Wake County Public School System, Leon joined Enloe High School as a Science teacher, then shortly thereafter, was promoted to Assistant Principal. In 1972, he made history at Enloe by becoming the first African-American Principal of a predominately white school in the history of the county.
In 1983, Leon made history once again by returning home and becoming the first African-American Principal of Apex High School. Following a successful tenure at Apex, he returned to Raleigh as the Principal of Carroll Middle School, later retiring from the school in 2001.
During Leon’s ascension in the Wake County Public School System, he remained vigilant as a tireless servant to his community. He served as the Corresponding Secretary for the Phi Lambda chapter (Raleigh) of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. for a number of years, as Chairman of the White Oak precinct of the Democratic Party, as an Advisory Board Member of the NC State Employees Credit Union, as a Life Member of the NAACP, an original board member of the White Oak Foundation and as a charter member of the Capital City Sertoma Club of Raleigh. The Sertoma Club always had a cherished place in Leon’s heart as he helped build the Capital City chapter from an unknown entity to one of the most impactful civic organizations in the Triangle community. He held numerous positions with the club, most notably as an International Director of the Atlantic Region and Life Member of Sertoma, Inc., where he presided over thousands of members.
Following his retirement from the Wake County Public School System, Leon never let any grass grow under his feet as he embarked upon one of his most ambitious endeavors yet. In 2000, he joined his wife, Shirley, in founding Bright Beginnings Child Development Center, a 5 star preschool located in Cary, NC. As was always the case with Leon, Bright Beginnings was created to exceed expectations. It remains one of the premier institutions in the nation, as evidenced by the multiple visits to the school by NC Governor, Roy Cooper and a visit by the US Department of Education Secretary, Miguel Cardona. Ever the humble servant, Leon had his hands in every facet of the school from custodian to CEO, to likely his most rewarding task as head greeter to all of the children who crossed the Bright Beginnings threshold every morning.
Throughout Leon’s life, his faith remained the center of every aspect of his existence. A lifetime member of White Oak Missionary Baptist Church, Leon accepted Christ at an early age and served in a variety of roles throughout his life. His contributions to White Oak and the New Hope Association are too many to measure, but his most lasting impact will be as the Chairman of the Christian Education Committee, Budget Planning Committee, Scholarship Committee and Deacon Ministry for decades. Later in his life, he joined the Senior Choir, joyously belting out songs such as “When God Dips His Pen” and “He’s My King” with his melodious baritone voice. Few things made Leon happier than attending church service and helping to lead White Oak to even greater heights.
Of all of the many hats Leon wore, the hats that undoubtedly gave him the most joy were as husband, son, father, grandfather, brother, uncle and cousin. Nothing meant as much to him as his family. As a son, he took joy in hearing his mother call him “brother” in her calm, reassuring voice. As a brother and uncle, he loved pitching in to help his sisters Erseldine and Kathleen as well as their children with anything they needed. As a father and grandfather, nothing pleased him more than seeing his offspring spread their wings and grow into adulthood. As a cousin, he made himself available whenever possible. Lastly, and most importantly, as a husband, he committed his life to Shirley, the one person who stood beside him faithfully for 59 years through the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows.
Preceding Leon in death were his parents, Garland and Bertha, his sister, Erseldine Bailey, his nieces, Karyn Frazier and Valerie Craven, and his nephews, Eugene Wright, Vincent Wright and Reginald Wright.
Leon leaves to cherish his memory, his loving and devoted wife Shirley, children: Lisa Ware (Marc), Cary, NC, Leon Jr. (Valerie), Durham, NC, and Linwood (Felicia) Cary, NC. Seven grandchildren: Brandon, Jalen Ware, Jordan Ware, Halley, Donovan, Aaron, and Austin. sister: Kathleen Herndon Lee (George). sister-in-laws: Juanita Jackson, Betty Fry (Walter) and Arleatha McDougal. nieces: Cassandra, Sharon Morris, Marcia Hayes (Rodney), Wonder Dixon, Madaline McDougal, Paula Allen, Vicki Wright, Vivian Bailey. nephews: Louis Jackson, Vance Wright, special grand daughter: Paige Hathaway, and a host of family and friends. A special acknowledgement to Leon’s extra-special caretakers, Pender Beckwith, Tshina Jeffries and Monica Muema. He will be truly missed. His legacy will live forever.
In memory of Leon, the family welcomes donations to the White Oak Foundation, Inc.