Leonard McNeil inspires through life work


Special To / The Advocate

After a long battle with prostate cancer, former San Pablo mayor and Contra Costa College adjunct professor of political science Leonard McNeil passed away in his San Pablo home on April 14.

By Joel Umanzor, Sports Editor

After a long battle with prostate cancer, former San Pablo mayor and Contra Costa College adjunct professor of political science Leonard McNeil passed away in his San Pablo home on April 14.

A memorial service was held to honor the life of the activist, community leader and educator in the Knox Center on May 3.

In front of family, friends and colleagues, testimonials and stories were shared on the consistent impact McNeil made in his community, from his days as a youth in Richmond to his impact as the first African American mayor of San Pablo.

Tambourines and maracas were provided by the McNeil family for those in attendance as a way to make “joyful noise” in his memory during the service.

It is not often a life touches so many different areas of a community, but McNeil not only had an impact politically, but physically, by making changes in places such as Walter Helms Middle School and during his time on the West County Wastewater District board.

CCC African American Staff Association President John Wade shared his experience cleaning and fixing things at Helms by hand alongside McNeil.

Wade said, “He told me (in regards to fixing Helms), ‘We’ve got to do something, the state of the school is in disarray.’ He took me over to the school, they had windows that were wooden, and I’ve never seen a wood window.”

Wade said that they both rolled up their sleeves and proceeded to clean Helms room-by-room.

He said McNeil was the reason the West Contra Costa Unified School District decided to tear down and rebuild the school.

Wade emphasized that the accolades, influence and legacy McNeil made in West County should be remembered and taught for generations to come.

McNeil was born in San Francisco on July 20, 1945 and spent the majority of his life in the North Richmond/San Pablo area, moving there in 1956 and living within the community for 60 years.

He graduated from Richmond High School, went on to play football and organize the first Black Student Union at Cal State-Fresno before being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1968 NFL Draft.

His time as a professional football player was disrupted due to his political stance against the Vietnam War, which forced him to flee to Vancouver, Canada. He returned to the Bay Area in 1970.

McNeil’s activism was synonymous with his character in his stances that challenged the conventional wisdom of the day, such as the Vietnam War. And he had a desire to put those ideas into action.

Social sciences department Chairperson Manu Ampim said McNeil was a true educator, with an influence stretching outside of the classroom with various projects.

Ampim said, “As a part-time professor, lot of times people they teach and leave because they have other priorities. But Leonard would teach and also have contributions on campus.”

“He was always looking to organize programs and to make an impact outside of regular teaching.”

His focus on education was due to a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. He earned a master’s degree in political science from San Francisco State University, graduating with honors at the age of 66.

McNeil said, “You are never too old to educate yourself.”

Members of the West County Wastewater District board also took turns telling stories about how McNeil influenced change.

An incident where a former wastewater district director made disparaging remarks about African Americans and Asian Americans was the catalyst for McNeil running for a position on the district board, and winning election in 2014.

McNeil made changes by influencing a progressive voice within the board.

This led to others eventually being elected to positions, including Cheryl Sudduth, who was an understudy of McNeil’s and has been a board member since 2018.

West County Wastewater District Director Sudduth said, “Leonard was a fighter. Leonard was a winner and Leonard pushed us every day to accept the challenges that life gave us, to never accept mediocrity, and never accept that we couldn’t get done today what needed to be done today.”

Sudduth said this mantra was due to McNeil teaching her that although tomorrow will eventually come, tomorrow is not promised.

McNeil is survived by his children, Carmen and Yusef, three grandchildren and brothers Leon, Joseph and Wayne.