- By Helena Oliviero The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Vicki Van Der Hoek filled many journals with notes about Leon Shields — cute stories, funny lines, dreams of a young boy wanting to be a pilot — a Delta pilot.
Vicki and Leon first met in 2002 when they were neighbors in a small Clayton County neighborhood overlooking a lake.
He was 6. She was 51. She was white. He was African-American. She was broke, at least until her divorce was finalized. He was from a middle-class, two-parent family. She was lonely. He had plenty of friends.
And yet, despite their differences, a friendship blossomed. Almost two years ago, the unlikely friendship between Leon and Vicki was featured in a Personal Journey titled “The Neighbors.” It’s a story about two people who met by chance, thanks to a dog named Lucky. And about how two people, despite their differences in age, race and circumstance, enriched each other’s lives in meaningful ways.
At first, Vicki was the friendly neighbor with an adorable dog, Lucky. Leon was the happy child with lots of energy, a child who could always make Vicki laugh, providing her glimmers of joy during a bleak time.
Over the years, Leon and Vicki became close friends. They watched old black-and-white films together, visited exhibits at the High Museum, and volunteered with the Georgia Council for International Visitors and Nicholas House, a homeless shelter for families in Atlanta. Together, Leon and Vicki donated more than 900 Christmas gifts to children since 2008.
All the while, Vicki encouraged Leon to follow his dream of becoming a pilot.
Sadly, Leon, 21, was one month shy of obtaining his private pilot’s license when he died in a motorcycle accident earlier this month. Leon was an organ donor. He was buried in his Aviation Career Enrichment (ACE) uniform with a Delta pilot wings pin — given to the family by Delta pilots who attended the funeral and remembered Leon as a rising star in his flight academy.
“One thing Leon always said is that he wanted to be a Delta pilot and for Delta to present Leon with his wings — that just blew us out of the water,” said Leon’s mom, Tonia Shields.
On a recent morning, hundreds of people — friends, family, classmates, church members and a handful of Delta pilots — packed the Christian Life Center in Rex to remember Leon, a hardworking, focused young man with a big heart.
Julius Alexander, the founder of ACE, said Leon showed promise several years ago while attending a summer camp the organization held the year before he started high school. Leon was happy and energetic, asked good questions and stood out as an outstanding student, even selected to participate in an intensive training program for top students. Leon continued his training with the nonprofit’s flight school. He also volunteered with ACE, representing it at career days at schools and serving as a volunteer camp counselor at aviation camps.
Alexander said Leon recently showed up in his office and “expressed his desire to give back to ACE in a huge way after achieving his goal of becoming a pilot.”
A week after the funeral, sitting at home in the kitchen, gazing at a lake behind her house, Vicki felt like she was in a fog and struggled.
“Over the years as Leon grew older, he became more and more a bigger part of my life. As a matter of fact, he was my life. Leon was everything to me,” she said. “All the joy in my life is gone.”
Leon was a constant in her life — a young man happy to fix her computer, help box up Christmas ornaments, accompany her to shows and events, and above everything else, be a friend.
“We always had the best time together,” Vicki recalled. “He had this way of always making me laugh. I could just say a word and it would remind us of a funny story and we would laugh and laugh.”
Vicki recalled Leon’s determination in becoming a pilot. Leon, also a student at Clayton State University, passed an online practice test for a written pilot’s exam, but he decided to study three more months to make sure he scored high on the test. Leon was pleased he scored a 92 on the test.
Meanwhile, Leon’s mom said she has been comforted by an outpouring of support, especially with stories about how Leon mentored friends and younger cousins.
“One of Leon’s friends told me how much he admired Leon,” Tonia Shields said. “He said he had dropped out of school and didn’t know what to do with his life, and Leon had inspired him, and told him to find out that something you want to do in life and go for it.”
She said Leon was a giving, helpful child. He helped her go grocery shopping every Friday, and together they went to church together every Sunday.
“He would always drop me off at the front of the church and then go park the car,” she said. “When we would go on trips, he would plan everything. The flights, the hotels, the excursions.”
Shields recently stepped inside Leon’s bedroom where he kept keepsakes — from flight school, family trips, schoolwork.
One corner of the room was dedicated to Vicki, with mementos, cards, photographs of a woman he considered a mentor, a second mom, a friend.
“I am going to leave it just like it is,” his mom said.
A scholarship in Leon’s name has been established with ACE. For more information about The Leon Shields Memorial Fund, go to ACE at www.flyace.org or call Julius Alexander at 404-691-0441.