Remembering William Thomas Leonard, Jr.

Remembering William Thomas Leonard, Jr.

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Bill Leonard and the sea were a perfect fit and inseparable. He was born on Dec. 21, 1928 and spent his early childhood on Gnarled Hollow Road (first house on the left) in East Setauket, New York. The Leonard home was just a stone’s throw from Setauket Harbor and just around the corner from the Rolston’s grocery store, where his father was manager.  Setauket Harbor was Bill’s “playground” and he’d tell you the marshy area behind his house “produced the finest muck in the world.”

His mother’s scolding’s were not enough to keep him from trudging around in that muck and coming home looking and smelling like a “swamp monster.”The family, now including a four-year-old brother, Edwin, moved to South Street in Port Jefferson village when Bill was 15 years old. One more Leonard boy (Francis) was born there, and Bill became a much admired and dearly loved big brother.  

He spent his teenage years cultivating life-long friendships, “having way too much fun,” and dreaming of the day he’d join the armed forces. At 17, he enlisted in the Army and at 20 he joined the Navy.

Bill and his duffel bag traveled the world. He was part of the occupational force in Korea while in the Army and served as an Engineman aboard four Naval ships in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and a PT boat in Vietnam. He achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer before his retirement in 1973. 

During his 22 years in the Navy, he was a Frogman with the Underwater Demolition Team (UDTs).  These teams were the predecessors of the Navy’s current Seal Teams. It was very dangerous work.     

Bill and his wife, Shirley, were both in their late 40s when they married. Shirley was an Army veteran (a WAC from 1950-53) and a beloved primary school teacher. Their marriage was one of deep mutual respect, adoration and a love everlasting.  

Shirley once wrote to a friend “Bill is quiet and unassuming. Little by little, I am finding out more and more. He is not a braggart. If there were a catastrophe, I would put my life in his hands. He would protect me.”  

Bill described their relationship this way: “It was just so comfortable —  like slipping on your favorite sweater.”  

Shirley (Bill’s “Punkin”) passed away in 2017.  

Bill’s health began to decline in 2020. By March of that year, after a short hospital stay, he was thoughtlessly and indefinitely placed in a nursing home as COVID-19 raged out of control.  

Thanks to the unyielding efforts of his family, Bill was able to return home and spend the last year and a half of his life in the cozy little house he shared with Shirley on High Street in Port Jefferson village.  Even as the end grew near, Bill never failed to lift the spirits of those around him. He was courageous, a guiding light, and an inspiration to all.  

He will be remembered for his kindness, generosity, good humor, optimism, honesty and his unrivaled quick wit. He will be missed but never forgotten by his adoring family and a multitude of friends who so enjoyed his company.

Bill was placed in hospice care at Stony Brook’s Veteran’s Home on July 29 and passed away ever so peacefully on Aug. 15.  He asked that no formal service be held in his honor.  He wished to be buried at sea as that was where his spirit longed to be.  

The Rev. Gregory Leonard and many members of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Setauket held a very special place in Bill’s heart — a proclamation and certificate they presented to him in 2008 for his commitment and support was a prized possession.  

Contributions to the church in Bill’s memory may be made to:  Bethel A.M.E Church, 33 Christian Avenue, P.O. Box 2117, Setauket, New York 11733.