By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
A crowd of about 75 people turned out last Friday (October 8) to say goodbye to Leonard Purvis. Tears were shed and a sense of loss was evident during the final rites for the local man, who passed away October 4, but there were also smiles from those gathered around his Serenity Gardens resting place.
The smiles were generated by a special tribute paid to the former Atmore policeman, state corrections officer, crop duster and lifetime airplane enthusiast by nine of his aviator peers, who said their collective farewell in a special way.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one,” said Ronnie Brown, general manager of Johnson-Quimby Funeral Home (which handled Purvis’s funeral arrangements) after a total of nine aircraft, including a Medstar helicopter, swooped over the burial site in small groups to conduct a choreographed flyover. “Usually there’s not that many, usually just one set. I was shocked; what a fitting tribute.”
Atmore Municipal Airport Manager Freddie McCall confirmed prior to the fly-over, which was arranged at the request of the Purvis family, that such tributes are rare, especially in this area.
“This is the first in Atmore history, that I’m aware of, that’s been organized like this for a fallen aviator,” said McCall, who noted several reasons that amplified the significance of the aerial salute. “He was very well respected; he was and always has been a big part of this airport, and he lived right at the end of the runway.”
Fittingly, his final resting place was at the other end of the local airport’s runway, just off U.S. 31 and only a few yards from where aircraft lift skyward when leaving the airfield.
Another fitting tribute came, likely unwittingly, from a crop duster who continuously dived to spray fields just west of the cemetery before, during and after the funeral.
McCall said Purvis’s love of airplanes and aviation was evident to all who flew from or landed at the local airstrip.
“He wasn’t an employee, he just loved airplanes and he liked helping people,” the airport manager explained. “I can’t tell you how many times somebody would land here — in the middle of the day or middle of the night, it didn’t matter — Leonard would get on that Kawasaki Mule of his and come down to check on them.
“If they needed something, he would take them to town, take them to a motel or to get something to eat, then bring them back. And he never charged any of them a nickel. He just like being around airplanes and airplane people.”
McCall told the participating pilots prior to the airborne testimonial that, despite the novelty of the event, safety and respect would override any thoughts of complicated aerial maneuvers.
“We’re not going to do anything dangerous; we’re not going to turn this into a circus,” he said prior to a pre-funeral safety meeting. “It’s going to be very respectful, and we’ve got to keep safety in mind at the same time.”
Charlotte Purvis, wife of Leonard’s brother Doug, agreed that the flyover was the perfect way to say goodbye to her brother-in-law.
“That was neat,” she said of the tribute. “All Leonard could do (during the last year or so) was sit and watch the airplanes. He bought remote airplanes and flew them. He just loved flying. I’m glad they were able to do that.”
McCall pointed out that Purvis passed away while sitting in front of his shop, watching airplanes land and take off.
“(Leonard) died doing the very thing he loved,” he said. “He was sitting in his chair, watching airplanes, and he just went to sleep. He was a great friend to this airport, and he will be missed.”