By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
OXFORD – There’s a saying that one can’t swing a dead cat in Oxford without hitting a writer.
It’s just as true that one can’t turn far in any direction without encountering the legacy of former Mayor John Leslie, who died Saturday at age 88.
There’s the Lafayette County-Oxford Library, Jackson Avenue’s expansion, the statue of William Faulkner at City Hall.
Even the square itself is drastically different for Leslie’s influence.
“When we first came here it was a big old wide space, and it was dangerous,” said Dr. David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the University of Mississippi, and a longtime Oxford fixture himself. Leslie “put up the bays in the middle and took out the parking meters. It facilitated the traffic around the Square.”
Leslie used his connections to get federal dollars – and local support – for a host of improvements.
“He was very progressive,” said former city attorney and longtime legislator Ed Perry. “He supported education and public parks and recreation in a time when it wasn’t that much in vogue.”
One of the biggest moves of his administration was instituting a 2 percent “tourism tax” to help Ole Miss build a new baseball stadium.
“It was a controversial issue,” said former Alderman Bill Baker. “The payment that the city was going to have to make was over $160,000 (annually), and they had no clue whether the 2 percent tax would pay for that. Of course, now it’s reached $1.6 or $1.7 million a year.”
H.C. Franklin, who served at different times as assistant police chief and alderman, said Leslie spearheaded the construction of a new police department facility.
One of the mayor’s most beneficial actions, Franklin said, was to secure federal funds to help replace run-down houses in the historic Freedmen Town neighborhood with well-built, modern residences.
Leslie, who split his time between City Hall and his pharmacy for five of his six terms as mayor, was “the ideal public official,” Perry said. “He was available literally all day long, every day. He didn’t seem to get bothered, even though he was ‘bothered’ all the time about everything from stop signs to water bills.”
One illustration of that imperturbability was when writer Willie Morris, a renowned practical joker, called and, disguising his voice, proceeded to convince Leslie that the central fire station and its firetrucks were ablaze.
“Most people would have been jumping up and down, but the mayor just said, ‘Oh, my gosh,'” Perry recalled. “John never did lose his composure.”
Sansing said Leslie had a gift for getting things done while getting along.
“The election of John Leslie as mayor of Oxford was a turning point in the city,” he said. “Under John Leslie, Oxford and the university embraced each other. He was just as much at home with college professors as carpenters and welders and ordinary citizens.
“Everybody loved him – black folks, white folks, college students, town folks.”