LEON T. GARR, one of seven children born to Eugene and Emma Garr, was raised in Lincoln Parish, Louisiana. He learned early on that life was to be handled with care. After nearly succumbing to typhoid fever, just as the 1918 flu epidemic was roiling across the nation, a doctor informed his mother that Leon would “never live to comb gray hair.” But his mother refused to believe the doctor’s dire prognosis, and insisted that he fulfill his responsibility to preserve her son’s life to the best of his ability. It was overcoming this near-death experience that gave Leon a lesson in persistence and an understanding that each day must be lived with gratitude and purpose. He also remembered the advice of his father, “In order to make money, you must have faith, work hard, and value each and every dollar you make”.
Though he received very little formal education, Leon learned the greatest lessons, such as taking pride in a job well done, why it is better to own than owe, and how important it is to develop enduring friendships, from his parents. These lessons have served him well throughout his life and career.
Because he grew up working his father’s vast farming operation numbering more than 400 acres, Mr. Garr discovered that not only did he possess a natural dexterity, but that he also had the preternatural ability for building things from scratch. By the time he was 12 years old, Leon had already developed an entrepreneurial spirit. After completing his daily chores on his family’s farm, and if time permitted, he actively sought out work in his surrounding neighborhood.
Several years later, Leon decided to “cast my own bucket” by moving to Ruston, Louisiana taking on menial jobs under the tutelage his mentors – Amos Gunn and Joyce Richardson. Under their guidance, Leon learned the fundamentals of the construction industry. Though Leon did not realize it at the time, working with his mentors, absorbing their wisdom and their experience, and watching them carefully was a phenomenal education in and of itself.
Over time, Leon built a solid reputation for his skill and craftsmanship. He worked on the construction of buildings on the campus of Grambling State University.
It was during this period that he met and married his first wife Cleophus Oliver. They founded Garr Grocery, a small store in Ruston that flourished despite nearby competitors and hard economic times. His union with Cleophus produced three children – Carolyn, Fred and Ranza.
California beckoned in the early 1940s and Leon and his family relocated to Los Angeles where he landed a job as a longshoreman on the docks of Long Beach until he was drafted into the Army during World War II. Upon his discharge in 1944, he was determined to create a life that was based upon equality, justice, and the freedom to exercise the same rights as any other citizen of the United States. He worked with focus, pushing forward despite setbacks and the endemic racism of post-war Los Angeles.
Life as a Longshoreman weighed heavily on his relationship as a young husband and father. Cleophus returned to Ruston where she reopened the grocery store which became a long and successful business. Years later, Leon met and later married Mattie Jackson, a generous, quiet and loving woman who became stepmother to his three children. Mattie Jackson Garr worked until it became clearly evident that her help was needed in assisting with Leons’s burgeoning construction and real estate enterprises, both of which were growing rapidly to include commercial and residential properties.
He later joined his siblings as a member of Phillips Temple C.M.E. Church. In the years to follow, Leon became active at Phillips. For the past 30 plus years, Leon was a faithful member of First A.M. E. Church. His last church attendance was in November 2017 where he was greeted with love and admiration by Pastor Boyd and his church members.
In his South Central community, Leon became widely-known as one who willingly made loans to families who wanted to purchase their first homes or to business owners who hoped to expand. He has always believed that helping others attain their cherished dreams was just “good business,” and over time he built an extensive network of friends which formed the bedrock of his growing empire. He credits a great deal of his personal and professional success to his many enduring friendships.
In the ensuing years, the Leon Garr Construction Company continued its upward trajectory of success, taking on projects all over Southern California, often in quick succession. In the process he used his knowledge and wealth of experience to identify, groom and promote talented employees within his company and a growing cadre of subcontractors, such as his son, Frederick. Living by his motto, “let’s go to work,” by the 1980s Leon Garr Construction Company with the help of his son became one of the foremost Black-owned general contractors in Southern California.
In 1989, federal regulators seized Founders Savings & Loan, one of the largest Black-owned savings and loan institutions in the western United States. Three hundred and forty potential buyers had tried to meet the price set by the regulators, but had failed in the end. Time was of the essence and if someone did not step in to buy the bank, it would be sold to one of the majority institutions. Leon understood that the community of South Central Los Angeles would only benefit from having access to local capital, and it was critical that the bank be saved so that South Los Angeles might prosper.
He assembled a “Dream Team” of experts which included his grandson, Carlton Jenkins. Of one mind and moving forward in lockstep, Leon and his team applied their unique skills and gifts to bring the purchase to fruition. Though there were detractors, he called upon his experience, his faith, and his passion to strengthen and support the hard-working people in his community. Ultimately, the transaction was successful.
On January 22, 1991, Leon became the Founders’ new owner. Once the transaction was completed, the name was changed to Founders National Bank. In addition to the Los Angeles branch, it quickly expanded into the cities of Compton and Gardena. In the early 2000s, Leon moved on to develop more entrepreneurial ventures . The bank today is known as One United Bank, which became the first commercial bank owned by African-Americans west of the Mississippi.
Leon’s largesse to Los Angeles’ African American community continues. He moved on to develop more entrepreneurial ventures. His family launched The Leon and Mattie Garr Foundation which makes educational opportunities available to students who wish to attend college and provides children with mentoring and tutoring programs years before. The Foundation contributes to Grambling State University where Leon began his career as a builder so many years before. At the robust age of 96, he added the Garr Body Shop to his list of entrepreneurial quests.
He became an influential role model for hopeful entrepreneurs, a source of inspiration to his community, his children and his grandchildren some of whom enjoy success today as entrepreneurs themselves, and who will take the mantle of Garr legacy into the next generation.
Leon T. Garr made an enduring and indelible impact upon the lives of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and lives of many in his community.
He passed away peacefully Tuesday, December 5, 2017 at the age of 103 in his home surrounded by his daughters and grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his six siblings, his first wife, Cleophus Oiliver Garr, his wife of 62 years, Mattie Jackson Garr and his son, Frederick Leon Garr. He leaves to cherish his memory, dedicated daughters Carolyn Nell Jenkins; son-in-law Walter Jenkins and Ranza Garr Trotter; son-in-law W. Harrison Trotter; devoted grandchildren; Elvira Lizyette Thomas (Ken); Carlton J. Jenkins (Nuria); Lathan L. Jenkins; Frederina Tidwell-Simms; Gay Ranza-Garr Dorsey (Melvin); Rena Renee Parks; Stacey C. Jenkins; Gerae E. Vernon;Nyema G. Jackson (Tenika); Margarita G. Walker (Kevin) and Lauren Ashley Garr, great grandchildren great- great grandchildren, and great-great-great grandchildren; loving nieces, nephews, cousins and a host of loved ones.
” Even so, it is well with my soul. the Trumpet shall resound and the Lord shall
descend, it is well with my soul.”
The Garr Family requests that in lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to:
Leon and Mattie Garr Foundation, c/o Ranza Garr Trotter 6709 LaTieja Blvd #522
Los Angeles, California 90045