By Laurie Pearson, Staff Writer
Because of the circumstances in which he grew up, Fayetteville’s Willie Lee Leslie could have resigned himself to a life of poverty and despair, but his faith in God, self-determination and good mentors along the way enabled him to overcome many obstacles.
“I came up rough. I didn’t have shoes to wear at one time,” Leslie said.
He didn’t get new shoes; he got hand-me-downs.
“Other kids at school made fun of me,” said Leslie, now a youthful 82.
But, that was the very thing that motivated him to do better and to help others to overcome life’s obstacles along the way.
He was born and raised in Capshaw, Limestone County, Ala. When he reached high school age, he worked during the daytime and finished school by taking night classes in Athens, Ala. Later, he moved to Tennessee.
When he was 18, he married Verna, to whom he has been married for 64 years. From their union, they have had five children, two of which are with the Lord, and five grandchildren.
In 1952, Leslie became a Christian while attending the Dellrose Suggs Chapel AME Church.
“I was baptized in the creek,” he said with a smile.
In later years, he was a presiding Elder over 18 churches from Chattanooga to Giles County for one year. In 1962, he became a pastor, and until he retired five years ago, preached in a number of A.M.E. Churches. The churches include Campbell Chapel in Pulaski, St. Paul AME at Agnew, Mary’s Chapel AME in Lincoln County, St. John AME in Mulberry, Berry Chapel AME in Lynchburg, Solomon AME Church in Lincoln County, Round Hill AME in Giles County and St. Paul AME at Waco.
He was also an elected delegate to the AME General Church Conference five times, attending conferences in Dallas, Texas, Atlanta, Ga., New Orleans, La., Louisville, Ky., and Cincinnati, Ohio.
As Leslie looks back, he sees that God had been working in his life from the time he was adopted as a child.
“I depended on my mother and father, but at an early age, I started depending on God,” Leslie stated. “I got up in the morning, then thanked God for the night before and asked for his blessings for the day.”
Then he said, “I’m not going to let Satan steal my joy.”
The first job he took after moving to Tennessee was at R.D. Gray Packing House, a meat processing plant. When he left there, he turned to farming in the country for a couple of years.
After moving to Fayetteville, he took a job at Williams Lumber, owned by John Nelson Williams, and learned carpentry work while on the job. For a while, he lived in the housing projects, he said, but he looked at it as just a temporary stop before moving up. While there, he started building a house for his family on McDonald Street, working at night after work on the home with the help of a couple other men.
“I would sleep two to three hours, then I went back to work,” said Leslie.
He later went to work for Builders Supply and was encouraged greatly by the owner, R.T. Mason.
“R.T. said, ‘Courtesy costs you nothing – be nice to everybody’.”
Leslie took that advice, and more than once, it was to his benefit.
Mason encouraged Leslie to buy some land and build another house for his growing family.
“I solely depended on God – it was the Lord that worked through R.T. Mason that helped me.”
He continued, “I always said R.T. Mason was my white father – he kept pushing me.”
Mason encouraged Leslie to continue to reach higher.
“I’m thankful to the ones that have helped me to become what I am,” he said.
When Builders Supply closed, Leslie opened a lumber company himself in 1980. He stayed in business for 10 years, and while in business continued on with other projects.
Sean Leslie wrote about his grandfather, “He always said, ‘If I can help somebody as I travel along this way, then my living will not be in vain’.’
Leslie assisted many people in getting into new homes of their own. Over the years, he built 73 houses in Lincoln, Giles, Marshall, Bedford, Franklin, Moore and Coffee counties.
“People did not care how much I knew; they wanted to know how much I cared for them,” he said.
In addition to the houses he built, Leslie built the AME Church at Kelso, Berry Chapel Church in Lynchburg and remodeled St. Paul AME. He constructed dining rooms at Campbell Chapel AME Church, Pulaski; at St. Paul Agnew in Giles County; at Mountain View A.M.E. at Decherd; and at Mary’s Chapel AME Church in Fayetteville.
Former Fayetteville Mayor S.J. King appointed Leslie to the Fayetteville Electric System board of directors, where he served for 24 years. Later, he served on the Senior Citizens Board and Fayetteville Recreation Board, and he is currently on the South Central Human Resources Agency Board. He was also a member of Shriners Tullahoma Consistory #185 and the auxiliary police for two years under Chief Dye.
“I try to stay active and try to help those that are struggling,” Leslie said.
These days, he says, he takes one day at a time.
“I wake up every morning and thank God that I’m still alive and ask Him to help me get through the day.
“He’s been good to my family and I’m thankful.”