W. Leon Pope, and wife Wilma, at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania homecoming in 2012. Leon Pope was a groundbreaking black journalist in Philadelphia and South Jersey known for his sense of humor and infectious laugh.

One of the first African-American reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News in the 1960s, W. Leon Pope was an early organizer of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and mentored many young minority reporters.

Pope, of Williamstown in Monroe Township, Gloucester County, was also a Press of Atlantic City reporter for 26 years, retiring in 2000. He died Aug. 9 at age 71.

Known for an irrepressible sense of humor, Pope tended to laughter rather than anger, even when anger made sense.

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Former editor Eileen Bennett, of Maurice River Township, said Pope was walking by the copy desk one day in the late 1990s and picked up a ringing phone. His voice was friendly, and he ended the conversation saying, “I’ll take care of that for you.”

He’d been talking to a member of the Ku Klux Klan, he told her.

The caller wanted to correct a term used in a story Bennett had written about a hate crime in Cumberland County, telling Pope the term “isn’t ‘cross burning,’ it’s ‘cross lighting,’” Bennett said.

“We had a laugh about that,” Bennett said. “It was typical Leon.”

Pope, who had served a tour of duty in Vietnam after being drafted into the U.S. Army, covered police, courts, minority affairs, local politics, the Casino Control Commission and more for The Press. Later, he became a minority-staff recruiter for the newspaper.

“You could have understood if Leon had a chip on his shoulder. He came up in newspapers at a time when there was still plenty of overt racism in society,” said longtime Press reporter John Froonjian, now a senior research associate at the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Richard Stockton College. “There were very few black journalists at the time, and he had to deal with some ignorant attitudes. But I never detected resentment or self-pity.”

Pope’s wife, Wilma, said her husband had enthusiasms that never dimmed throughout his life, including for jazz and fast cars.

“He liked to think he was a musician, and he’s not,” Wilma said, but Pope played the drums and saxophone for decades. He was never in a band, she said, but played along with a jazz record.

“He would go on for hours. I’d say, ‘Leon, give it a break!’” his wife said.

They didn’t have children, but they raised her late sister’s two kids, William Mixon, 50, and Keisha Mixon, 34.

Pope mentored his nephew, Bradley C. Bennett, who worked briefly at The Press, Wilma said. His nephew was a reporter and editor at the Miami Herald who became the editor-in-chief at the Broward Times; then senior editor at the National, an English-language paper in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and now works in communications for a renewable energy company in the Middle East.

After leaving The Press, Pope had two strokes, his wife said. But he came back from them, never losing his high-energy approach to life.

“I was able to save enough money to get him an older Porsche,” Wilma said. “It was his dream car.”

He had to use a walker to get to that Porsche, but that was no problem, she said.

“He’d put the walker in the back and drive off in his two-seater,” Wilma said.

That headlong rush into life was even evident in his typing.

“He would pound the keyboard nonstop, rat-a-tat-a-tat, the words flowing out of him like whiskey at an open bar,” Froonjian said. “And the very last stroke was to hit the button that would send the story to an editor. ... He didn't even look at the story before sending it off.

“Pope would invariably say something like: ‘I don't need to read it. I wrote it,’” Froonjian said. “If there were any typos in there, well, that's what editors were for.”

Former Press reporter Peggy Ackermann, now at the New York Daily News, remembers Pope’s laughter.

“You knew the party — back then there was always a party — had started when he arrived because of his booming laughter,” she said. “He was always warm and upbeat and never let managerial stupidity get him down. He just rolled with it, had another cigarette and found joy in every moment.”

“He was a rare person whose very presence made people happy,” Froonjian said. “And I think that's about the best thing you could say about a person.”

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:

609-272-7219

@MichelleBPost on Twitter

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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