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Family shares memories of man who inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd's name

Wife, daughter reflect on Leonard Skinner's link to band, impact of Alzheimer's

Is there a real Lynyrd Skynyrd? Questions like that one have been asked throughout the decades about Jacksonville's famous rock band.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Is there a real Lynyrd Skynyrd? Questions like that one have been asked throughout the decades about Jacksonville's famous rock band. 

Many fans know the story. Two of the founding members were sent to the principal's office at Lee High School and ended up naming their band after the coach who disciplined them. 

Memory lane, however, is a bittersweet notion for the family of Leonard Skinner, the coach who lost his life to Alzheimer's disease. He was there at the beginning -- back in the late '60s in Jacksonville. 

"So my dad was a coach at Lee High School. The encounter with Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington happened there at the school. Unbeknownst to us, he sent two kids to the office for having hair that was beyond the dress code," said Susie Skinner Moore, Leonard Skinner's daughter. 

Moore showed News4Jax photos and spoke about her father's connection to the legendary Southern rock band. At a seventh-grade dance at J.E.B. Stuart Junior High School, the hot, young band performed and shocked Moore for a couple of reasons. 

"And I thought -- I was so amazed," Moore said. "I will never forget the signs they made advertising the band because they had 'Leonard Skinner' spelled just like my dad's name on there. And I thought, 'Wow, somebody else has the same name as my dad.'"

That didn't last too long. Moore said Rolling Stone did an interview with Ronnie Van Zant, and the cat was out of the bag. 

"Someone in our circle of friends heard the interview and called my dad and said, 'Hey, did you know you have a rock band named after you?'" Moore explained.

Leonard Skinner moved on from coaching and became a real estate broker on the corner of Osceola Street and Riverside Avenue. It was the first sign of trouble.

"He had signs made, 'Leonard Skinner Reality,' and people would steal his sign. Like, yes they did," Moore said. "They stole them right out of the yards."  

When the band's second album came out, it had a photo of the real estate sign on the inside cover with the office phone number -- instant convenience. 

"So one night, at like 4 a.m., his business phone rang. He picked it up, 'Leonard Skinner Reality,' and you could hear this music in the background and then all he heard was somebody went, 'Far out,'" Moore recounted.

Her mother and Leonard Skinner's wife, Rosemary Skinner, finished telling the story.

"So he says, 'Why are you calling me?' He says, 'I just wanted to see if you were real.' Hang up the phone," Rosemary Skinner said. "So we had a lot of incidents like that."

The fun stories are great memories for Moore and Rosemary Skinner. 

The band eventually changed its name to something that sounds like, but is not really, Leonard Skinner.

"Well we, sort of, for a while wished they had kept it like my husband's name so that maybe we could've got some of that money they made," Rosemary Skinner said. "But, you know, they were smart. They got a lawyer."

What Leonard Skinner got was a lifetime of a connection to a pop culture icon. And for his wife and daughter, that's where the other shoe begins to drop. When Leonard Skinner was ready to enjoy the sunset years of his life, Alzheimer's disease robbed him and them of the love of their lives.

"One of the things that was the most heartbreaking for me was the fact that he was not able to follow a sports game anymore because, listen, this man loved his sports," Moore said. "I mean, he was a coach. He loved sports."

"I didn't plan to get old on my own. I didn't plan to have arteritis and not have anyone to rub my back or hug me and kiss me and make me feel better," Rosemary Skinner said. "Because this is an insidious disease and it takes people away from you just a little bit at a time. It's not like they fall down and they're hurt or break a bone or something like that. This is just a little tiny something that you notice."

His wife and daughter said Leonard Skinner passed away about five years after his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease. They shared their memories of the husband and father just before the beginning of November, which is Alzheimer's Awareness Month. They are both passionate about supporting the Alzheimer's Association, and will participate in the Walk to End Alzheimer's in Jacksonville, coming up November 16.

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On Tuesday on News4Jax, anchor and reporter Tom Wills takes you with him as he returns to Mississippi for the first time since he went there 42 years ago to the scene of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash.

On News4Jax at 5, there are painful emotional scars that still have not healed for Judy Van Zant, Ronnie Van Zant's widow, and Corrina Gaines, daughter of Steve Gaines. Then on The 10 O'Clock News, Wills returns to the woods where the plane went down with one of the local residents who took part in the heroic rescue effort that night more than four decades ago. 

About the Author:

Kent Justice co-anchors News4Jax's 5 p.m., 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts weeknights and reports on government and politics. He also hosts "This Week in Jacksonville," Channel 4's hot topics and politics public affairs show each Sunday morning at 9 a.m.