Earl Leonard’s relationship with the University of Georgia began nearly 60 years ago when he entered as a freshman. After earning a degree in journalism, he served on the journalism faculty while earning a second degree in law. Post graduation he became press secretary to U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell, then joined Coca-Cola in 1964. Leonard spent 35 years with the soft drink giant, becoming senior vice president in 1983 and leading the corporate affairs division before retiring and serving five additional years as a consultant.
Though he settled in Atlanta, Leonard stayed involved with his alma mater. He took on a number of roles with the Alumni Society (now the UGA Alumni Association) before becoming president. He got involved with fundraising, serving as chairman of the Annual Fund and helping to start the President’s Club (giving level of $1,000 or more). Leonard served on hiring committees, the School of Law Board of Visitors, the Journalism Dean’s Advisory Committee, the Athletic Board and the UGA Foundation board of trustees. These years of service followed from the belief that his accomplishments were a direct result of the training he received.
“I wanted to do something to [give] back to the University of Georgia, which I credit with making me a successful person,” he says.
UGA President Jere Morehead was a young faculty member in the late ’80s when Leonard invited him to Coca-Cola for a visit.
“Over the years, I would just periodically pick up the phone and say, ‘I need some advice,’” Morehead says. “He’d either give it to me then, or he would invite me to come see him. That’s one of his favorite lines: ‘Come see me.’”
In his last decade at Coca-Cola, Leonard noticed that the job candidates he met were lacking leadership skills and began thinking about how higher education might train future generations.
“You have got to have leadership abilities for a 21st-century success in business,” he says.
After retiring in 1999, Leonard and his wife pledged $2 million to establish the Bebe and Earl Leonard Leadership Scholars Program, a two-year leadership development curriculum for Terry College of Business undergraduates. The gift helped to establish the Institute for Leadership Advancement, and the program has since expanded to offer leadership development training to non-Terry students.
And Leonard continues to give his time, serving as a Terry Distinguished Executive-in-Residence. He visits campus every two to three weeks, scheduling one-on-one meetings with students from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., which is when his voice usually gives out.
“He has contributed thousands and thousands of hours to students and has truly impacted one class after another of Leonard Leadership Scholars over the years,” Morehead says.