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Al Martinez

His Generosity Graced the Outer Edges of Paradise

November 29, 2001|Al Martinez

If there's a heaven somewhere, a blue-sky place where good people go, Leon Lasken is surely there.

He's probably hauling around bags of cookies from the 99 Cent Store and giving them to those who seem afraid or lonely or down on their luck.

Leon would know that even in a place like heaven, there's a need for small demonstrations of kindness, especially toward those on the outer edges of paradise.

Many benefited from his generosity while that sweet old man walked this earth. They were the people that others ignored because, like the souls in heaven, they, too, were on the outer edges of paradise.

Leon brought them cookies and comfort. Sometimes he gave them huge bags of groceries, and other times he gave them money.

No one was beyond his reach, no one too dirty or disconnected to receive his help.

He lectured me once on the rewards of giving after I'd used the term "bums" in a column. There are no bums, he said, only people saddened by the life they've had to live.

He told about handing a dollar once to a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk near his home. "He couldn't speak," Leon said, "but he gave me a look of thanks I'll never forget. Then he took both my hands in his and pressed them against his heart." His voice choked as he added, "All that for a buck."

I met Leon in 1992, on the day after rioters had turned much of South-Central L.A. into smoking ruins. The small grocery store he had once owned on Prairie Avenue was one of the few buildings in the area that hadn't been trashed.

Later I understood why.

I interviewed him in the back room of the store. He'd opened it shortly after the end of the second World War and sold it to his manager 43 years later after suffering a mild stroke. But he went there often because it was so much a part of him. It was always Leon's place, and always will be.

He was a remarkable man, a combination of street and sophistication, an accomplished violinist with a Juilliard education, and a ghetto grocer who knew how to handle himself in an area where muscle counted more than music.

He played with a quartet of old people once in a while but decided early on that he couldn't make enough money as a musician and didn't have the temperament for teaching.

I first heard of Leon when he sent me a check for $100 out of the blue to give to a minority student trying to better himself. I forwarded it to a teacher I knew at Imperial Valley College near the Mexican border. Then another check came and I began wondering, who was this guy who sent money on faith to help someone he'd never met?

I found out over the years.

He was a man who, when he owned that store in South-Central, probably gave away as much food as he sold. No one Leon met ever walked away from him hungry. Even thieves benefited from his benevolence.

He liked to tell about a shoplifter who came to the store, a man obviously down on his luck. Leon spotted him right away and watched the guy wander up and down the crowded aisles for what seemed like hours. Finally weary of the game, he said, "For God's sake, man, steal something and leave." He did.

Later, Leon put a sign over a big trash container in the rear of the building. It said, "If you're broke and hungry, come in and ask for Leon."

"The best present you could give my dad was money that he could give away," his daughter, Jeanne Segal, said the other day. "He got such pleasure out of giving."

He had a special feeling for minorities because they had to struggle the hardest to make it. For years, he sent money to Imperial Valley College and, with the help of his daughter, bought musical instruments for kids in South-Central who showed talent.

The young loved him because he brought them hope, and the old because he brought them company and comfort. He cared about everyone, Segal says, "and he acted on that caring every day of his life." When he didn't have money to give, he'd buy cookies from the 99 Cent Store and take them to those who needed a boost.

For all of that, Leon's days were not without pain. The granddaughter he adored, a troubled young woman, committed suicide five years ago. Leon cried for her. "She was giving life her best shot," he said with tears in his voice, "but nothing was working."

His wife of 65 years suffers from Alzheimer's disease and is being cared for in a home. Leon visited her two to three times a day up until the end. Betty was "my honey" in frequent telephone conversations.

He rarely spoke of his own illnesses, but of his honey's, or even mine. On days when my column wasn't in the paper, he'd call to see if I was OK.

"Don't be sick," he'd say. "We need you."

Leon had graced the earth for 90 years when he died recently of heart trouble. His final days were brightened by visits from those he had befriended. Waitresses and mechanics came, and so did the lonely and forgotten.

Leon Lasken, who wanders now on the outer edge of heaven, embraced them all. He leaves this world enriched by his presence.

*

Al Martinez's column runs on Mondays and Thursdays. He is at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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