story by Connor Walters '09
The procession of vehicles made their way underneath partly cloudy skies.
As the lights on the emergency vehicles flashed, thousands of people lined the streets of Cleveland to pay tribute to Wayne Leon ’86, a Cleveland Police Officer who was killed in the line of duty on June 25, 2000.
Streaming from the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown, the funeral motorcade crossed the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge heading westward into Ohio City. Grace Leon, who with her three young children mourned the tragic loss of her husband, was surprised by what she saw as her vehicle approached West 30th Street.
“It was so amazing. It leaves you speechless,” she says. “Because I didn’t know that that was going to be part of the drive to the cemetery, that was going to happen that all these fine young men stopped their summer vacation to come and pay their respects.”
Saint Ignatius students had turned out by the hundreds that warm afternoon on the last day of June to honor their brother from the Class of 1986. They held a large banner offering the Leon family their support—a banner that Grace Leon still has to this day.
Twenty years after his death, Grace remembers that gesture of support as emblematic of what Saint Ignatius did for her husband, and what it has meant to her family.
“My boys used to run those halls of Saint Ignatius,” she says. “I remember being told by [former president] Fr. Kesicki, ‘Your boys are going to learn so much about their father when they walk these halls just like he did.’”
What they would learn, and what the school still remembers two decades later, is that Wayne Leon was a faith-filled family man who worked hard to make a difference in his community.
“When he would come home…he would come in and the kids would run and hide throughout the house,” Grace says. “Wayne would walk in the door and put his stuff down from work and he’d say, ‘OK, where are my kids? It’s time for the tickle fest!’ You’d hear them giggling and a big tickle fest would ensue.”
Justin, Gabrielle and Nicholas Leon were just 5, 4 and 2 years old when their father was killed. Being a dad, perhaps, was Wayne’s first calling.
“He couldn’t wait to be a father,” says Grace. “He loved being a father. He couldn’t wait to coach the kids in all their sports.”
Wayne’s focus on family and faith were two of the things that most attracted Grace to him when they first met as freshmen in a physical education class at Cleveland State University in the fall of 1986. On the last day of class, Wayne asked Grace for her number; he couldn’t figure out if one of the numbers she wrote was a ‘1’ or a ‘7’ but he told Grace, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll try every number until I get it right.”
The two quickly made a connection.
“He was very handsome and very physically fit,” Grace says. “As you get to know him you get a greater understanding of other qualities about him—his kindness and compassion, and he was very family oriented. He was the oldest of three brothers and he was very watchful of his brothers and loved his mother. Family was really important to him; faith was really important to him.”
After six years together, Grace and Wayne married in 1992. Throughout their lives together, Grace learned of her husband’s affection for his Alma Mater.
“Wayne was always so proud of being an alumnus of Saint Ignatius,” she says. “It’s some crazy bond…I didn’t understand. He’s the only one of his family that went there and he worked really hard. He worked at Burger King to help pay for things. He also wrestled and played football. Wayne really wanted the boys to go to Ignatius. That was a dream that he had.”
Both Leon boys did attend Saint Ignatius. Justin graduated in 2013 and Nicholas in 2016; Gabby attended St. Joseph Academy in West Park.
And the Leon family legacy continues at school through a scholarship given in Wayne’s name every year to a student who has family members in the Safety Forces.
“It meant so much to Wayne that kids get assistance to attend, especially kids whose parents are in law enforcement to see if he could help them send their boys there,” says Grace.
John Ruddy ’86 was a classmate of Wayne’s at St. Thomas More for grade school and then at Saint Ignatius. He became a Cleveland fireman and his oldest son, Jack ’16 became the first recipient of the Wayne Leon Memorial Scholarship.
“Wayne had a great sense of humor. He liked to have good time,” Ruddy says. “He was very close to his family. He was an incredible father and husband and he loved his job. He was a very hard worker, respected by everyone he worked with and even the people in the community he worked with. Family was most important thing in the world to Wayne.”
For about five years, Chris Spear ’89 worked with Wayne in the Third District. Leon actually was one of Spear’s field training officers and the two were partners for about a year. In addition to calling Leon “a workout enthusiast,” Spear says that he was committed to making the city a better place.
“He was a very enthusiastic police officer,” Spear says. “He was certainly not the type to get into his car and drive around all day. He was looking to make a difference and truly felt he was. He said it all the time. His phrase was: ‘There’s no way we’re not making a difference out here. Of course we are.’”
On nights when they were on patrol, Leon would find a phone and call his family before the kids went to bed. “He was the ultimate family man,” Spear says. “They were everything to him.”
Since 2003, Saint Ignatius has made an effort to recognize alumni who are policemen, firefighters, and everyone in the Safety Forces who works to keep the community safe.
Justin Leon, in fact, is one of them. In 2019, he graduated from the Cleveland Fire Training Academy and received his pin, which bears the same badge number as his father’s did: 1338.
As a single parent and provider for her family, Grace also found a meaningful way to carry on her husband’s legacy by serving the community in ways she never expected.
“When I saw the outpouring that came out for our family I vowed that I would be there for other police families should [another officer] sadly pass away,” she says. “I volunteered with a lot of police agencies and did a lot of community work when the kids went to school. I went back to college and got my social work degree and I ironically worked for Frontline Services. My role on the team is embedded in the Cleveland police homicide unit. I help families who lost loved ones in unsolved homicides.”
“That’s a path I never would have taken,” she adds. “It definitely evoked a passion in me to help others.”
Grace sits with families in their grief and assists them as a counselor and trusted friend. She uses her professional training and personal experience to help victims’ families work through their pain.
“When they’re so hurting and vulnerable, they allow us to share such details of their loss,” she says. “What a sensitive time of life that is. I’m honored to walk this journey of grief with them. They do all the hard work. I’m just honored to talk with them.”
During her own grief, Grace says she grappled with doubt, confusion and questions of faith. Time and prayer have helped her begin to understand the journey of the past 20 years.
“God has a plan that we’re not even aware of,” she says. “How did I end up in the Cleveland homicide unit? Out of all the places I could have worked, I didn’t plan to work there. I just think that speaks to God’s plan, and you just don’t know what His plan is.”
Two decades after his casket was escorted past his beloved Alma Mater, Wayne Leon’s legacy lives on. A memorial stone was planted in the garden along the northern end of the Mall in 2013. Grace and her sons, along with a small group of administrators, safety forces members and friends, gathered there on June 25, 2020, to pray for a man whose life was taken far too soon, but whose legacy endures in countless ways.
A Man for Others he was, indeed.