In Memoriam: LeRoy Franklin Saunders

by Nolan Crabb

Life has an unusual and sometimes wrenching way of connecting and reconnecting people.  When I first met LeRoy Saunders at a low-rate Las Vegas hotel in 1990, I had no idea that some 22 years later, I would be tasked with writing a memorial to him in these pages.  As to that Las Vegas encounter, it wasn't nearly as sensational as you might think.  LeRoy had come there to interview me for the editorship of this publication in early January.  I thought I was being the prospective employee hero by booking LeRoy into a low-budget hotel, and while he was truly a good sport about it, he later admitted to me that he would have been OK with a slightly better quality place to spend the night.  Thus began a close association that was to positively shape my life for a decade.
LeRoy was born May 9, 1931 and grew up in Virginia.  He began his career with Virginia Industries for the Blind in 1951.  In 1973, he moved to Oklahoma City, Okla., where he worked initially as the assistant director of the Oklahoma League for the Blind.  He would eventually become the director — a position he held until 1992. 
He believed passionately in the potential of blind and visually impaired people to succeed, and he worked tirelessly to improve social and economic opportunities for them. 
He served three two-year terms as president of ACB, and was appointed to the Committee for Purchase by President Clinton. 
His awards and honors included an Irwin Award and the highly acclaimed M.C. Migel Medal from the American Foundation for the Blind. 
My mind is awash in hundreds of memories of a man who supervised with equity, decency, and the kind of thoughtful humility that is a hallmark of truly great leaders.  LeRoy came into my life a few years after my dad died, and I came to love him for his willingness to continue to believe in me during times when my performance would have made a non-believer out of a lesser man.  He and I ate scores of private meals together over those years, during which he shared his hopes and goals for the organization and helped me better understand how I could be instrumental in helping him achieve those.  His care for those who worked for ACB during his tenure as president was genuine indeed. 
His ability to press forward through difficulty and adversity was equally impressive to me.  In the early 1990s, when ACB struggled to free itself from a significant amount of debt, LeRoy found ways to both implement new technologies and to encourage the staff to embrace them in ways that translated to benefits for every ACB member.  He wore the mantle of president with a thoughtful grace that elevated the organization but left LeRoy approachable and unchanged.  On one occasion, when he had spoken to a group of dignitaries gathered at the ACB office in Washington, he came into my office at lunch time.  It was clear to me that he wanted a quiet place to eat, gather his thoughts, and regroup.  We had a rather quiet conversation about things that mattered to both of us — children, computers, and other less consequential things.  As we threw away our lunch plates, he sighed wistfully and said, "Well, I guess I'd better go out there and be presidential."  I was struck then with the knowledge that there were scores of people in that larger room with whom he could have productively had lunch.  Instead, he sought the relative solitude of my office and some simple conversation.  He understood, as great leaders do, that the welfare of the individual is crucial to the success of the organization.
Upon learning of his death on Sept. 14, ACB members from throughout the nation expressed their sorrow at his loss and their condolences to his family. Michael Byington, a long-time leader in ACB in his own right, perhaps best summed up what so many feel with LeRoy's passing.
"Although I chaired some minor task forces when I was on the ACB board, LeRoy was the first ACB president to offer me a major committee chairpersonship, the resolutions committee, a post which I kept for seven years. That work really allowed me to come into my own in ACB. It gave me the opportunity to learn about why ACB is the organization that it is. It allowed me to establish my own journey in ACB rather than just being that verbose son of those charter members, Jack and Bonnie Byington. ACB is a valued and very integral part of my life, and always will be. … LeRoy was one of those who most contributed to that being the case.
"When LeRoy stepped down from his presidency of ACB, he accepted a position on the Council of Citizens with Low Vision International (CCLVI) board of directors. I feel sure that he did not accept this position because he had a lot of fire in his belly for doing so. He accepted because he knew that the organization was struggling a bit at the time, and frankly, that I was struggling as its president. He told me simply, 'You helped me out on the ACB board, and now I am here to help with CCLVI.' That was LeRoy. He knew where he was needed and he stepped in to help.
"LeRoy understood the politics of employment for people who are blind, not only National Industries for the Blind, but the entire field of employment for the blind, and related governmental entities and related governmental purchasing and procurement issues. When I became director of governmental affairs for a facility which included National Industries for the Blind affiliation, in 1995, LeRoy became a mentor. He was someone I could consult for information and perspective that just was not available anywhere else.
"In summary, LeRoy was a friend, a motivator, an educator, a helper, and a mentor. I will miss him much."
LeRoy is survived by his wife of 30 years, Pat; his son, Franklin; and Franklin's wife, Lynn; and his daughter Becky.