A Life Lived: The story of a man and his mule

Published 7:55 pm Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Leon Whitehead had an easygoing personality and optimistic attitude toward life, those who knew him said.
He lived a life centered on family, serving God, and being a good neighbor and friend. They were always the most important things in his life.
“He was a quiet, unassuming person. In high school he was never on the honor roll or won any awards. He never made any waves. He was just a great person, a good person,” said Edna Thomas, a friend since their high school days at Cloudland.
Leon died last Wednesday at the age of 74. He lived in the Whitehead Hill Community of Carter County. His obituary was brief, listing his remaining family, church affiliation and where he had worked. However, one statement stood out: “He loved his mule.”
Leon’s mule, Molly, was his pride and joy according to family members. Several years ago he purchased Molly in North Carolina and brought her back to his small Roan Mountain farm. “She was unlike any mule I had ever been around,” said his niece, Shannon Whitehead. “She was very gentle, and both Leon and his wife became very fond of Molly.”
Leon was known for taking Molly to Vacation Bible School, where she was an instant hit with the children. “They enjoyed riding her and feeding her carrots,” Shannon shared. He recently had built a small cart, which he hitched to Molly, and would often ride the neighborhood children up around Fork Mountain and along Railroad Grade Road.
Although Leon and his wife Christine had no children, he enjoyed children and being around them, and they loved him. “One little boy upon hearing of Leon’s death was devastated,” said his sister, Della.
Leon also saddle-rode Molly, and oftentimes would put her in the field at Della’s place to graze. “When he came down the road in his car, Molly would follow the car, trotting along the fence to the barn, where Leon would stop and feed her carrots. She loved carrots and everyone would feed them to her,” said Della.
In August of this year, Leon’s beloved Molly became very sick with a bacterial infection and had to be put down. Leon took it hard, but suffering from COPD, he struggled to take care of Molly. He told his sister: “I think the Lord took Molly because he knew I couldn’t take care of her any more.”
Leon had been alone the last two years, his wife having died after a courageous battle with lung cancer. “Christine was the love of his life. He doted on her. He was a very devoted husband. He’s happy now. He’s with her,” said Della.
The preacher who officiated at Leon’s funeral noted that when Christine died, a part of Leon died.
Most everyone who knew Leon agreed he was a humble man. Generous, he never wanted to be the center of attention, but the kindness he spread did not go unnoticed, and left an impact on those who remember him.
The Montgomery boys — Danny, Jack and Frank — were among his best friends. They often helped Leon cut and put up hay for his cattle, and he, in turn, would help them with their hay harvest. Sometimes, Leon would buy hay from them if he came up short before the next growing season. The Montgomery boys would also help Leon shoe Molly. Saturday they served as pallbearers when he was laid to rest at Happy Valley Memorial Park.
Leon was also an outdoorsman. In past years he had enjoyed hunting and fishing. He especially loved to coon hunt. In addition to tending cattle, he had in the past had dogs. But, when he quit hunting he got Molly, who received a lot of his attention.
Leon had worked a number of years for the Carter County School Maintenance Dept. In earlier years he had worked for Iodent Chemical Co.
Aside from the love for his wife and Molly, the one thing that stood out with Leon was his love for God and his church. “He enjoyed attending church and everyday he shared his faith with those he came in contact with,” his sister shared.
“He told his pastor that when he died, not to talk about him, but to lift up Jesus, and that’s what the preacher did. It was more of a church service than a funeral,” Della shared.
In the last years of his life, COPD chipped away at Leon, and he found it increasingly difficult to do anything.
Wednesday evening, he died in his sister’s arms after taking a short walk outside and collapsing just steps shy of his house.
Gone, but not forgotten. To Leon’s family and friends, he was “the salt of the earth.”

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