By Henry Bryant
Nancy Leighton was almost unstoppable. Persistence was her middle name and stubbornness was her first. This was a good thing (most of the time) for us because her primary dedication was to this community. Her interests were many, but there was enough singlemindedness to go around. Nancy died early on the morning of April 30 in the Intensive Care Unit of Grady hospital after overcoming pneumonia and a heart attack. Her level of community activity was remarkable given her 28-year disability and ever worsening health.
Nancy was born near St. Paul Minnesota where her dad was a chemist for 3M Company. Her family lived in White Bear Lake where she was in the first graduating class of the new high school there. She went on to attend and graduate from the University of Minnesota majoring in Anthropology-African American Studies. Her interest in African Culture and what it has meant for the United States eventually brought her to Atlanta with the idea of pursuing employment in the field. Nancy, who was white, found herself competing against African Americans for the limited positions that were available. Her dedication was evident but she lacked experience professionally and personally.
Ultimately, her African American job search in Atlanta and across the south was unsuccessful, but along the way she saw a notice for a training program with the Carpenter’s Union, at that time located on Boulevard near the King Center. The program not only offered training, but also an apprenticeship with pay and then a permanent job as a Union Carpenter. As a woman, she was a minority in this field of endeavor. She was great at detailed work and also reading plans, and she could wield a hammer with the best of them. She gained experience working on several smaller jobs, but the most recognizable project was working on the Lenox MARTA Station as the North Line was expanding. Her skills were put to use building the forms necessary for the facility’s cast concrete construction. Working as a carpenter, she was stricken with arthritis, a result of a previous encounter with Lyme Disease. These led to restricted exercise and activity.
Nancy was a unique individual. She was born Nancy Jean Stowe. She never married. To punctuate her individuality and separate the sounds and musicality of her name, she legally changed it to Nancy Jean Leighton. She appreciated history and chose the name “Leighton” because there are Leightons in her family tree.
If you attended any community meeting in SAND or Neighborhood Planning Unit (NPU) W, you were likely to run into Nancy. If you were a new neighbor, before you could get unpacked Nancy would roll up in her trusty Ford truck to check on you. She had worked for a time back in Minnesota at the library reviewing and recording community stories and historical information. She always thought that these stories of everyday people and events were more important than the biggest news of the day and would be valued by historians later. This belief led her to volunteer with The Porch Press where she became a writer, advocate, advertising sales person, board member, board secretary, photographer, proofreader, production staffer, and calendar editor. Nancy Leighton’s passing has literally blown a hole in the operations of this paper.
If you were around her for more than a minute you discovered her love for singing. Often you could hear her coming before she arrived as she warbled an obscure show tune, gospel melody, or just whistled a happy song. Many in the neighborhood knew her from the singing group that met monthly in Bob Goodman’s living room. Another artful endeavor was quilting and sewing, attested to by the bags of material she left behind and many dress patterns. (I still have a washable and reusable pollen mask she made for me.) She was active and opinionated and musical at the historic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception downtown near the capital. And she remained interested in the French language throughout her life. She loved meeting with the mostly African American women who regularly convene for lunch and social activity at the Senior Center off Jonesboro Road.
Overarching everything was her interest in planning, maps, building code, zoning code, and property development. She planned, designed, and was the contractor for her own house on the south end of the SAND neighborhood off Custer. It was unusual, built to fit a triangular lot, with energy efficiency in mind, and a handicapped at-grade entry. She had so many plans for her unusual home, and a limited income for carrying them out, that completing the project dragged on especially with her declining health. Beyond that she reveled in asking hard questions to developers, city staff, politicians, elected officials, and community leaders. Her time on the board of this newspaper was no different. Her opinions would be aired and her attention to detail was evident in each issue’s calendar of events.
Through it all Nancy never gave up. Though she often predicted her demise, she just kept going. She was always thinking and planning for her community. She never stopped dreaming about how good we could be. Always anticipating ways to make life better for herself and her neighbors. Those of us who knew and worked with her will miss her. She did vital work, was a vital voice, and in spite of disabilities and the challenges of poor health, Nancy Jean Leighton displayed enviable vitality.
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