On January 27, 2017 carnival veteran and life-long concessionaire Bobby Leonard passed away. Leonard is survived by his beloved wife of over 50 years, Mary Jean, his daughter, Jean, his son, Robert, his brother Jimmy, as well as five grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren (with one on the way).
Bobby Leonard grew up as one of eleven children in rural North Carolina. He and his family grew up very poor and while Leonard was young, he experienced the end of the Great Depression. When the carnival came to town, Leonard and a couple of his brothers would help tear down rides to earn extra money for their family. Four boys from the North Carolina town (2 of whom were Bobby and his brother) ran away with the carnival, World of Mirth Shows. The carnival travelled by train and once the boys were discovered amongst t
he load, they were in danger of being thrown off. However, Wilbur Cook's father happened to be with the show and had seen what hard workers the boys were and vouched for them so that they could continue to travel with the show. Bobby Leonard was just 13 the first time he ran away. His father followed the carnival and made his sons come home. But, shortly after that time, Leonard and his brother ran away with the carnival again and when his father came back to retrieve him the second time, he allowed his son to stay once he saw how much money he had made to send home to his family.
Once officially a part of the industry, Bobby Leonard started off working for Walter Cox. He did whatever jobs needed to be done: tear down, loading, etc. According to his daughter, Jean, her father had a fantastic work ethic; "He was part of the generation that really worked. He did whatever the show needed and loved doing it." After a while, Bobby Leonard used the money he earned to start buying his own equipment. Leonard hopped around from location to location and somehow ended up in Oklahoma City early on in his career where he met his wife, Mary Jean. She came from a long line of carnival women: she was the 3rd generation in her family making their daughter, Jean, 4th generation. Mary Jean and Bobby eloped and got married on July 20th, 1966; their daughter, Jean, was born exactly a year and a day after their wedding day. The newly married Leonards lived in Gibsonton and then would work winter quarters in Miami.
Jean Leonard describes her dad as a carpenter and designer who liked to think outside the box. He was always brainstorming ways to keep the size of the game trucks and trailers down while still having room to live and work in the truck. Bobby, Mary Jean, Jimmy, and Jean Leonard spent most of their lives living in the back of the games. Jean distinctly remembers that the truck would back up onto the midway and the back end would have the duck pond game in it and a sliding door would separate the back half of the truck with the game from the front part of the game with the living quarters. This way, Mary Jean could run the duck pond game while also watching the kids throughout the spot. Jean recalls her father always saying, " the truck pays for itself."
Jean says that growing up in the carnival and living in the back of the game until they were 18 caused her family to grow extremely close. Jean says, "We were a working family. each one of us had a job. At the end of the night we would play games together or help count the money from the day and its not like now where there's internet and all kinds of things to distract people we had to keep ourselves and each other entertained."
Bobby Leonard mostly hopped around from spot to spot in the Midwest and then eventually settled down with Astro Amusements for about 20 years. Jean says that her dad loved the independence and the rewards that came with working in the carnival industry as a concessionaire; "He loved that the harder you worked, the luckier you got. There wasn't much opportunity where he grew up and in this industry hard work and ambition are rewarded."
Bobby eventually retired and built a house on the river to relax with his wife. Over time, his health deteriorated. Jean says that their family feels lucky to have had all the time that they did with him. According to Jean, in this industry, it's easy to lose someone from an accident or the long hours and the Leonard family is thankful that Bobby lived a long and fulfilling life. Recently, the Leonard Family went on a cruise to celebrate Bobby and Mary Jean's 50th wedding anniversary. Jean said it was a wonderful trip and she's glad to have those memories with her father.
Bobby Leonard's service was held on Tuesday, January 31, at the International Independent Showmen's Association in Gibsonton. Jean says that at the service she realized what a positive impact her father had on many people's lives. People recalled stories and sayings her dad always shared while on the road. Bobby Leonard always had a smile on his face and an engaged group of people around him invested in a story or joke he was telling. Jean recalls one of her father's most meaningful sayings; "You're my horse even if you never win the race." This was Bobby's way of saying he supports and loves the people in his life no matter how successful they are or what they've accomplished. Jean also says her dad and and uncle loved playing softball and actually raised the money to build the softball field behind the Showmen's Club in Gibsonton; which is appropriately named "Leonard Field" in their honor.