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September 2009
Charlotte's Conscience
By Ellison Clary

     He’s a respected businessman and political leader, but Ron Leeper is much, much more. You could call him a conscience for Charlotte.

     His constant lobbying for a more socially just community afforded him the opportunity for meaningful business success.

     When Leeper was a relatively young representative on Charlotte City Council, he caught the attention of Hugh McColl Jr., who was busy building NCNB into what became Bank of America. They found that they shared a desire to make Charlotte a better place for all its denizens.

     McColl subsequently sponsored an internship for Leeper with a builder, and that led Leeper to the establishment of R.J. Leeper Company, Inc., a general contractor, and Leeper Construction Company, a construction manager. Today, those entities have been combined into R.J. Leeper Construction, LLC, employing 25 and averages $20 million a year in gross revenue.

     Despite his success, though, Leeper keeps up pressure on political and civic leaders, from a decidedly Christian view, to make Charlotte more socially just.

“It stands to reason,” Leeper says, “that if you had more people doing well, you would have more people doing good.

     “That’s something we haven’t really had a lot of dialogue about,” he adds. “People who are getting a large percentage of the pie don’t seem to be concerned about others who are not. And people who are giving out the pie, whether they happen to be banks or others, don’t seem to have the sensitivity that Hugh McColl has.

     “They don’t understand that the more people have a stake in this community, the better off we are likely to be,” he adds with passion.


Having a Stake

     Leeper had no stake in Charlotte when he arrived in 1968 after a brief military career. Right away, he got involved in the black community.

     “I was considered a kind of rabble-rouser,” he says with only a slight grin.

The product of a segregated school system in Belmont, just across the Catawba River, Leeper had left home at 15 because of deep differences with his stepfather. He was taken in by the janitor of his high school, who ran a strongly religious household.

     As a welder at a company making U.S. Army vehicles for the Vietnam War, Leeper earned enough money to finance some social improvement activities.

     The integration movement in the Charlotte schools had just begun and was controversial. Students, both white and black, were involved in fights and other disruptive pursuits, but black pupils were getting expelled in disproportionate numbers.

     School officials told Leeper it was because black parents weren’t showing up for hearings concerning their child’s behavior. Those administrators didn’t appreciate that black parents oftentimes worked jobs without the flexibility to leave for a school matter, regardless of how serious it might be.

     So Leeper, who had married his high school sweetheart Phyllis, formed a group of black surrogate parents to represent black students in trouble.

     “We had a form they could sign authorizing me to stand in for them in any school hearing concerning their child,” he recalls. “I think I was representing 10 or 15 kids.”

     Not long after, a group seeking district representation on Charlotte City Council recruited him. “I determined it made some sense to have a system that allowed geographical representation,” Leeper says, “but I was the only African-American in the group.

     “There was not much trust in the African-American community at that time,” he continues. “They thought, ‘If white folks are asking us to support something, there’s probably some gimmick to it that’s going to come back and bite us.’”

     But the movement prevailed and in its first year, 1977, Leeper won election to predominantly black District 3, which runs along West Boulevard and encompasses much of southwest Charlotte.

     He served 10 years and the whole decade he chaired a committee concerned with community development and housing. He took council members on bus tours of District 3 and showed them problems such as trash piles, brazen drug dealers and substandard houses. He got an ordinance passed that gives the city the right to repair absentee-owned houses and charge the owners for the work.

     Leeper even took McColl on a special tour and McColl became a believer in Leeper’s causes. After Leeper returned to council to serve an uncompleted mayor pro-tem term, McColl took him to lunch.

     Both men discussed ways to improve Charlotte, and Leeper planted a seed. Tell the contractors vying for your bank’s building projects, Leeper suggested, that they’ve got to introduce more diversity in your construction teams. McColl liked the idea.


Taking a Leap

     Six months later, McColl lieutenant Dennis Rash called Leeper, and outlined a construction internship with what was then the FN Thompson Company. Leeper, who had several businesses including the first vehicle detailing operation in an uptown parking deck, asked who the bank had in mind. Rash said, “We identified you.”

     So, starting in 1990, Leeper worked at FN Thompson, learning the construction business. By 1992, he was able to present a business plan of his own to McColl’s bank.

     “They loaned me a bunch of money,” Leeper says. “From what I understand, it’s called a character loan. I never had to pledge my house or anything else. And they gave me the opportunity to do business with the bank.”

     Leeper’s company has been involved in some of the most visible construction projects in the city. Among them are the Charlotte Transportation Center and several parking decks for Bank of America. The firm also was instrumental in building the headquarters of the Urban League of Central Carolinas and now-named TimeWarner Arena.

     “Some of the things I’m most proud of don’t necessarily have to do with size,” Leeper says. “We built one of the first free-standing medical facilities for Carolinas Medical Center. It’s on Beatties Ford Road, right across from Johnson C. Smith University.

     “We built University Park Baptist Church on Beatties Ford Road,” he continues. “There are some smaller churches that we’ve done where people had to struggle to pay, where we had to do some things a little bit unconventional to make it happen. Those kinds of things give me a lot more pride than the things you would see and that would be obvious.”

     McColl calls Leeper a logical person who is interested in doing the right thing. As a business leader, Leeper has succeeded and as a civic leader he’s been tremendous, McColl adds, in both the black community and in the city at large.

     “I would put him right up there with my friend Harvey Gantt,” McColl says. “I trust Ron Leeper. I have great respect for his integrity. He is standing up for what’s right.”

     On September 19, Leeper will accept the fourth annual “Luminary—Lifetime Achievement” award from The Charlotte Post Foundation at a black tie dinner at the Hilton Center City. Other winners have been former mayor Gantt, Julius Chambers and Bob Davis.


Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs

     “I’m glad I got in the construction business,” Leeper reflects. “It has afforded me a good living and, more importantly, it allows me to do what I think God put me here to do. That’s to influence a lot of other things. It gives me great flexibility to serve with the Chamber and the Performing Arts Center and support causes I think are important.”

     For Leeper, those causes have been numerous. When he left city council, he paved the way for Ella Scarborough to win election to his District 3 seat. She went on to run unsuccessfully for mayor. Later, Patrick Cannon served multiple terms from that district and, after a time off council, is seeking an at-large seat this fall.

      Cannon says he considers Leeper his political godfather. “He instilled in me to never lose the common touch and make sure I represent people from all walks of life,” Cannon says of Leeper.

     Leeper points to a higher power that has directed him. “There were times when I could have gone in a different direction and the Lord put someone in my life,” he says.

     First it happened with the Wheeler family who took him in as a troubled teen. Then came Belvin Jessup, a young minister who got Leeper involved in St. Mark’s Methodist Church. He organized a march on the Board of Education that Leeper joined. It probably saved West Charlotte High from being shut down.

     Then first wife Phyllis contracted cancer. She lived a dozen more years.

     “I wrestled a lot with God,” Leeper says. “Phyllis was one of the best people in the world. I think God left her around for 12 years to help me understand that He’s in charge and He can do anything He wants to do and it’s going to be the right thing.”

     Now Leeper attends services at Steele Creek Community Church of Charlotte, a church he guesses is the most integrated in the city. “They do a lot of missionary work and support a lot of local causes,” he says.

     He enjoys time with second wife Dorothy. They like to walk and exercise together and they team up on church work. Leeper will be 65 in December and plans to be involved in his company for years to come. But he is training Tyrone Harmon to take the reins one day.


A Meaningful Voice

     Meanwhile, Leeper remains a respected voice in the community.

     He’s working for various local candidates such as mayoral hopeful Anthony Foxx and council at-large aspirant David Howard.

     Further, Leeper is active in “Emerging Leaders,” a program he started for ninth graders at West Charlotte High. “We’re taking freshmen and assigning a mentor to them,” he says. “We’re trying to encourage them to stay in school and improve their grades and act in a manner that allows them to be successful.”

     McColl admires the way Leeper can bridge the generational gap. Leeper shows young people how to get into the establishment and work for change from inside, McColl says.

“When you make a list of a handful of people you’re going to talk to about something, his name will come up,” McColl says. “So he’s a player. He will be a force in the city for making good things happen for a long time to come.”

     For his part, Leeper goes back to the issue of too many people left out of Charlotte’s overall prosperity. “Because of the economic times we live in,” he says, “there are people who are homeless who have never been homeless before.

     “I’m more interested in the holistic approach and always have been,” Leeper says. “It’s not just housing, although that’s a first step. How do you get people back on their feet so they can have hope and believe in something and want to better their circumstances?

     “I hope I will get politicians and the Chamber to understand that it’s not healthy for a community to leave a lot of people behind.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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