He’s a former hippie who loves Canadian music. He doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer. Now the stonemason extraordinaire opens up about life, friendship, faith, and the material that continues amaze him
Words and Images by Al Blanton
“I’ve been a Deadhead before Pig Pen O’Ded,” confesses Leonard Hunt between tugs from a large thermos. It’s early morning on 3rdAvenue in Jasper, and the former Grateful Dead follower-turned stonemason is already fully engrossed in his work. This morning he’s lumbering around the jobsite, composing his symphony made of natural native stone while gulping coffee and an occasional Marlboro (the doc has told him he needs to lay off both).
In a 30-minute conversation, Hunt broaches a kaleidoscope of topics, from the music he’s interested in to his thoughts on Donald Trump. One would think, given the intricate web of his mind and the manner of his appearance, that he or she was having a conversation with Leonard-o da Vinci, rather than Leonard, the country boy who was raised in Curry.
Yet way back when, Hunt’s mother found five or six acres that were suitable to her, and the family relocated from Cordova to the Smith Lake area when Leonard was a young child. Boats, at that time, were not these gigantic presentations you see today, but mostly metal flat bottom fishing boats, and Hunt remembers paddling in the water as a boy and waving vigorously to friends who passed by on their small vessels.
Hunt’s father was a stonemason, and Leonard apprenticed under him in the summers. “Back then you did what your mother told you and didn’t question it,” he admits. “She’d say, ‘You’re going with your daddy today’…so I would work with him. Back then, there was no such thing as payin’. And you dared not ask your mother what you were going to make. Because she loved you, she would always slip you some money.”
Country and lake life were always juxtaposed with town. Flashing a luminous smile, Hunt recalls the excitement of a trip to Bernard’s Store for Men to buy a fresh pair of Levi’s from proprietor Bernard Weinstein, or standing in a line that ran from Rexall Drugs to J.C. Penney to pay for his schoolbooks, like the children used to do back in the bygone days of Walker County education.
He remembers borrowing $300-350 from First National Bank each semester so he could pay for college. He remembers making ends meet by working at the circulation department of the local newspaper, shoving circulars in the paper’s belly for $1.65 an hour. He remembers the hippie Volkswagen with the peace flowers he bought from Eastside Volkswagen, and that the payment on it was $62 per month. He remembers his days at Walker College, where he would saunter down to the Rebel Roost for a game of pool or just to shoot the breeze with his fellow scholars.
One might easily conclude from these short anecdotes that Hunt is a very nostalgic man, one who clutches, as William Blake might have suggested, the Songs of Innocence in his heart. But one also has to appreciate the journey, that his comeuppance was accomplished through good ol’ fashioned hard work and grit. If he got it, he got it because he worked for it.
But more than that, Hunt is as interesting a man as you’ll ever meet. He’s a color-outside-the-lines kind of guy who attacks the world with passion and gusto. For instance, he says he gets up every morning at 4 a.m. to read musical biographies, two at a time, “for a minimum of an hour.” This particular week, he’s reading Boys in the Trees by Carly Simon and Joni Mitchell: Anthology.
With respect to technology, he is a minimalist. He’s been offered a Kindle, but says he wants to “touch the book, smell the book, feel the book.” As far as a computer, “don’t have one, don’t want one, wouldn’t have it!”
He professes “there’s something about that Canadian music” he particularly likes and would not have had a Tony Bennett 8-track in his Volkswagen during his days as a hippie. But his favorite artist, without question, is Neil Young. “I have everything Neil Young has ever done. I have all of his biographies,” Hunt says.
The next thing you’ll notice (actually, it’s probably the first thing) is that he addresses you as “honey” or “darlin’” and calls you by your last name. He says he does this because his mother urged him to be “sweet in life.” Sometimes, if you’re lucky, he’ll combine the two and address you as “honey darlin.”
Hunt is a pacifist who doesn’t like war and believes anger is wasted energy—“those britches you got angered in, you’ve got to turn around and get glad in ‘em,” he says.
He’s not a man controlled by money, but is fond of excellence. “Money does not drive me. Let’s see…what can make off that job?” Hunt says hypothetically, his fingers twitching and eyes averted. “Well I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in doing the job! And doing the job the way it should be done to satisfy the customer.”
While on the jobsite, he is intensely loyal to each project. “You don’t have time for shenanigans,” Hunt says. “You go to work to work.” So he works all day with few breaks, goes home, plays all the messages from his old timey blinking answering machine, and returns all of his phone calls.
His work would mean nothing without the impact it (and he) makes on people. He values immensely the relationships he’s built throughout the years with his various “bosses” and relishes the moments when folks drive by one of his jobsites and honk and wave.
Raised Pentecostal, Hunt is a man of outspoken faith. “Oh paramount! Paramount!” he says of the importance of having faith. “It’s like a pot of beef stew, I believe that different denominations go to heaven. You can be right in heart but wrong in doctrine. It says to work it out your salvation with fear and trembling. I love the Lord, but I fear Him. Each night, I say, ‘Lord, if I’ve done something wrong, forgive me.’ Each night!”
Stone fascinates and fuels him. The shape and challenge of it. The strength of it. “There’s no system (to stone),” he says. “Right now, I’m thinking what I need to do an hour from now. There’s no pattern. That’s the reason I love it, it’s the challenge of each job. Cause each job is different. You can’t just go out there and just throw it up, no.”
“The strongest thing of stonework is the arch. The arches that Romans built so long ago are still standing! That’s what infatuates me. I do stonework but I cannot fathom it in my mind. I can’t fathom how those Aztecs got those stones so close that you can’t even put a knife between the joints. I can’t fathom that.”
Hunt’s legacy—the stonework he’s done all over northwest Alabama—will survive long after he’s put into the ground.
“To me, when I leave the earth, ‘Well, he’s been here! He’s been here!” Hunt says.
Then he sips coffee from his thermos, let’s out a raspy laugh, and disappears back into the stone. 78