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A Tribute to Leonard

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to a great American. Chances are you’ve never heard of him—unless, by chance, you happened to frequent the corner of M and 18th Streets NW in Washington D.C. Then, there’s no way you haven’t.


His name was Leonard Hyater. He sold Street Sense newspapers supporting the homeless. Day in and day out, rain or shine, snow or 100% humidity, passersby could always count on Leonard to greet each and every one of them with a warm smile, a sincere hello and, if willing, an informed conversation on current events of the day. Leonard never tired of conversing with any of the many who’d take the time to chat as they awaited the lights to change from red to green.


I got to know Leonard as we both sat in the glass-enclosed corner of Pret A Manger, sipping coffee and watching the world pass by in front of us during the thirty minutes before diving headlong into our daily routines. I would usually find him there bright and early each morning reading his favorite Bible passages, or catching up on the day’s breaking news on his smart phone. It was a ritual I came to cherish.


He and I would discuss everything from the shape of North Korea’s infrastructure to the latest deliberations of the Supreme Court to how we know all the Avengers are going to be just fine following the cliffhanger ending of Infinity War.


Over the months that I knew him, I would come to learn that in Leonard’s previous life, he’d been a mortgage banker, until losing his job in 2014 and becoming homeless. He suffered from Type 2 diabetes and worked tirelessly to keep it under control; he’d also just lost his father in May.


From time to time, Leonard would contribute an article or a poem to the paper, like the Father’s Day tribute he wrote commemorating his dad, a cop, who had passed away just six months earlier. Leonard shared how his father had helped him overcome the butterflies during his first-ever phone call to a girl, and, having realized his son had reached that age, the uncomfortable tenderness and love with which he imparted the coming-of-age lesson of the birds and the bees to the awkward teen. Leonard began his Father’s Day message thanking his dad for “raising me to be the man I am today.”


I am embarrassed to admit that somewhere deep in my subconscious, I questioned how Leonard could make such a statement, considering his situation—and remain utterly ashamed that such a thought could ever cross even the deepest darkest recesses of my brain. Particularly upon learning that, amid the hardships Leonard faced day in and day out, he had just earned a Maryland Real Estate Certificate, after completing evening courses, thanks to the sponsorship of a generous donor who also provided him a laptop.


Leonard’s sharing of his immense pride and optimism at the prospect of becoming licensed realtor was the last conversation I had with him. As we parted ways that morning, I assured him his father would have been so proud of him. “I know he would have,” Leonard replied.


The following morning, I showed up to our corner of the coffee shop and Leonard wasn’t there. Nor was he the next morning or the morning after that. It was the first time since meeting him that he’d been absent.


It wasn’t until I returned from a vacation to the Pacific Northwest that I learned Leonard had died. Someone had erected a make-shift memorial to Leonard on his corner, marked with a small mountain of flowers and balloons.


I openly cried in the coffee shop the morning I learned of Leonard’s passing, but found solace in just how many people stopped to read every last word of the tribute tacked to the memorial announcing Leonard’s death. I found comfort in knowing mine were not the only tears shed that day as others repaid Leonard’s warm smile with genuine grief, sympathy, and compassion.


We lost a great American on July 16, 2018—as anybody who regularly crosses the corner of 18th and M Streets NW will surely tell you.