Washington leader leaves a legacy of trust
A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday (June 19) at Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, followed by a reception a few blocks away at the home of Beverly and John Fox Sullivan on Porter Street.
Interment will be 1 p.m. Wednesday (June 20) at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. For more information, call 202-494-2100 or 202-363-4422.
By Mary Ann Kuhn
Special to the Rappahannock News
Gene Leggett is probably already working toward consensus among the various camps of angels in Heaven, if what he did on Earth is any indication.
That’s how one could see the legacy of Eugene Sheldon Leggett II, who died at 86 on June 8 at Fauquier Hospital in Warrenton with family at his bedside.
The analogy fits the former mayor of the Town of Washington, who won over a divisive town council with trust, compromise and consensus after he became mayor in February 2003 following a distinguished career with the CIA and private industry.
During his nearly eight-year tenure as mayor, Leggett and the council worked together to finance and build a wastewater treatment system, a project that had been fought over for 20 years by three or four town councils. Another accomplishment was the rebuilding of the town reservoir that more than doubled the size of the town’s water supply.
“He was an excellent manager of people,” said the Rev. Jennings Hobson III of Trinity Episcopal Church. “Gene’s whole thing was making people feel good about themselves, that they were valuable, and then they could work together. It is about building trust – being able to trust one another.”
Hobson worked alongside Leggett for more than three decades at Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue, where Leggett was first an EMT and firefighter and then the company’s president starting in 1981, two years after Hobson was president. Leggett was still president when he passed away.
“As a public official, he never failed to see the best in someone’s opposition to something he supported, or in their support for a cause he disagreed with,” said Rappahannock County Administrator John McCarthy, who has known Leggett since 1986. “This generosity is extremely rare, and so all the more to be remembered and appreciated.”
In those days, Leggett was chairman of the Rappahannock County Water & Sewer Authority and had just managed the construction of the Sperryville sewage treatment system. Leggett remained on the authority until recently, most of the time as chairman.
McCarthy, who also is the town zoning administrator and lends his expertise at town council meetings, said, “I was particularly fond of his manner of managing loud controversies by the humble expedient of simply getting quieter, and of taming raging egos by effacing his own; these were the most effective means I think that I have ever seen employed in such situations, and they frankly enhanced his stature all the more.
‘I occasionally argued with him, never won, and the public interest was always served in his victories, which he never celebrated,” said McCarthy. “I will miss him very much as a man, a friend and a leader.”
McCarthy said that Leggett was someone who “felt that a person’s civic duty was never done. He believed deeply in the notion of community and in everyone doing what they could to help their neighbors in good times and bad.”
Leggett’s oldest son, Sheldon, told a story about how his father quietly went to the bank, took out a personal loan and bought a new ambulance for the Washington fire and rescue squad after an 18-year-old friend of Sheldon’s, who was hiking Devil’s Stairs with him in 1979, fell and hit his head on rocks. The teenager died several hours later. The ambulance that arrived wasn’t well equipped by today’s standards, he said. It also got a flat tire trying to drive two miles up a hill to reach the teenager.
“Gene was determined to get Little Washington an ambulance,” said Sheldon. “No one knew he was the one who bought it.”
“The thing that struck Dad the most was the poor condition of the ambulance and the inability to reach people,” added Leggett’s youngest daughter, Katharine, during a recent family gathering. “That started Dad’s real interest in the fire department and that segued into the town and water and sewer authority.”
Long-time friend and neighbor Jimmie DeBergh, who is the sixth generation of his family to live in Harris Hollow, said, “Gene’s intellect was matched equally by common sense and benevolence. If someone disagreed with him, he would put himself in that person’s shoes, in the opposition’s shoes, and try to understand people who differed from him. It wasn’t ‘my way or the highway.’
“As a mayor I think he was the best thing to happen to the Town of Washington. At that time the town was basically accused of being fairly single-minded. There was a lot of discord in the community that they weren’t represented well by the town, and then Gene came on board.
“Gene was a great peacemaker. Mayor, yes. But one of the greatest men to live in this county. To my knowledge everything he did was in the public interest, for no personal gain, no personal interest.”
Gene and his wife of 60 years, Clarissa, who he fondly called “Pard,” were looking forward to celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary on June 28 at The Inn at Little Washington, their favorite restaurant.
“Gene and Clarissa were among our very first guests at The Inn and still hold the world record for number of dinners eaten here in one week,” recalled Patrick O’Connell, chef and owner of The Inn at Little Washington. It opened in 1978.
“They dined at The Inn five nights in a row back in the early days. When the whole family lived on Harris Hollow Road, they would drive by the corner and see a family member’s car parked outside and they’d stop in and all gather for an impromptu dinner.”
At that time Leggett’s son, Sheldon, worked a few summers as a waiter and would wait on his parents when they came in, said O’Connell.
“During that period there was a lot of drama in town politics and The Inn often found itself at the center of some tempest in a teapot. Gene was always able to see the humor in it all and offer a balanced and candid perspective.”
O’Connell said, “We were so happy that he agreed to run for mayor of the town and knew that he had the capability to bring people together . . . No one fully realized then what a transformational figure he would become as mayor. His expertise proved to be the rebuilding of trust in people. He always cautioned that without trust nothing could be accomplished and that when it had broken down it must be restored.
“The sewer treatment system would never have been possible without Gene’s leadership. He and John Sullivan worked admirably as a team and were steadfast in their mission to accomplish this project in spite of ambivalence and uncertainty on the part of a number of residents. I know he was very touched by the council’s decision to name the road leading to the plant,.
“Gene Leggett provided Washington, Va., with a future. It is a future we would not have had otherwise and it is a bright one. He left us with a solid foundation – a legacy of trust to continue to build upon. And he proved to us that with trust anything is possible,” said O’Connell.
In 1968, Gene and Clarissa Leggett, who were living in McLean, bought an interest in a ski lodge in Harris Hollow, a few miles from Little Washington. The ski area closed in 1974.
The Leggetts purchased the lodge as their full-time home in 1977 and named it “Rush River House.” They lived there for nearly 30 years. Their home was the scene of memorable Boxing Day parties over the Christmas holidays.
Friend and real estate agent Philip Strange remembers those times. “They put on an addition that was designed for entertaining. It had a huge heated swimming pool, a few guest rooms and a fabulous living room with a stone fireplace. To go to their famous Boxing Day party was a special treat, with a roaring fire in the fireplace, a tremendous Christmas tree and lots of good food and drink and delightful conversation.
“From the CIA, sailing and woodworking, as well as being a pilot, Gene was brilliant in many ways, especially the way he handled people,” said Strange.
“Gene knew how to get the best out of everybody as well as how to get the best for Rappahannock County and the Town of Washington, both of which he loved. He was adored by his wife Clarissa and his four children, and he adored them,” he said.
In 2002, the Leggetts moved into the Town of Washington to another house on Harris Hollow Road. Leggett had been asked to run for a seat on the town council. (A person has to be a town resident in order to serve on the council.) A judge appointed him to the town council seat and a few months later he became mayor.
He won reelection as mayor to a four-year term in 2006 and decided not to run again in 2010 because of his age (85) and the workload. At that time he won a four-year term as a town council member and the council chose him to be vice mayor with the new Mayor John Fox Sullivan.
“Gene was a giant of a man in every respect,” said Sullivan. “His physical size was matched, if not exceeded, by his intellect, willpower, good humor and most of all, character.
“He did not stand by and simply observe life but rather jumped into the fray, fought for what he believed in and got the job done,” Sullivan said. “Gene was most proud of his efforts to bring a level of civility and consensus to the town council by developing trust among its members.
“As a student of history who understood and cared about governing and the use of power, Gene was a strong and effective leader. He will not be replaced,” said Sullivan.
Laura Dodd, who is town clerk and worked daily with Leggett as mayor, said: “When I first started working with Mayor Leggett 10 years ago, he was a man with a mission, which was to get the sewer system built. He accomplished that by getting a $4 million, zero-percent-interest loan and a $416,000 grant. He also got the new 225,000-gallon reservoir built. He was a man of action. He knew how to work with people and bureaucracies. With the exception of my mother, I probably learned more from him than any other person I have ever met. I will always miss him, especially our wonderful conversations and laughter over lunch.”
In the library of Gene Leggett’s home on Harris Hollow Road where he spent hours reading about American history and the founding fathers (and founding mothers) there are shelves upon shelves of books about U.S. and world leaders – Washington, Adams, Madison, Roosevelt, Churchill.
There is a book entitled, “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” by Walter Isaacson. Between pages 456 and 457 is a bookmark from the Old Sperryville BookShop. On those pages, the author writes about the “most eloquent words Franklin ever spoke” in his closing address to the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Franklin spoke about the spirit of compromise, the virtue of intellectual tolerance and the importance of paying respect to the opinions of others.
Mary Ann Kuhn, innkeeper at Washington’s Middleton Inn, is a member of the Washington Town Council and a former editor of this newspaper.