Remembering a Great Friend

by Mark Lovett on January 26, 2009

I’ve experienced many ups and downs over the years, but there are often phases where life is going along quite well and, to some degree, I tend to take things for granted, as though everything around me is safely in place, that all my friends and family will be there forever.

And then a day comes, as it inevitably does, when that dream-like bubble is burst by a dose of harsh reality that one can never predict. It may mean the loss of a job, a long relationship that ends sadly, or some financial crisis, but it often involves the unexpected passing of a loved one.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news…” is how the process often begins, and in this case the bad news came on Friday, January 23rd in an email from a close friend. The note said that Leon Santoro had passed away the previous day, and a memorial service was scheduled for Monday the 26th.

I had to read the email a couple of times before it truly registered. It simply wasn’t possible, I hadn’t known Leon was sick, I had never said goodbye, he was such an amazing person, how could this be?

Leon Santoro in the Winery

Leon at the Winery

A Brief History

Born in Villa Santa Maria, east of Rome, Leon Santoro was raised in a family of winemakers and chefs.  He came to the United States at age 17, enrolled at the State University of New York, and earned a degree in chemistry. His first job in the wine industry was at Louis Martini Winery in Napa Valley.  He later joined winemaker Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where he assisted Winiarski from 1978 to 1981. These highly regarded vintages earned many accolades, including a Double Gold at the London Wine Festival for the 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1981 he joined Quail Ridge Winery, also in Napa Valley, as co-owner/winemaker and in 1985 the White House presented his Quail Ridge Chardonnay at a dinner honoring Prince Charles and Princess Di. In 1986, Quail Ridge Chardonnay was purchased for the superpower summit between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev.

Leon headed south to San Diego in 1991, accepting a position at Thomas Jaeger Winery and stayed on when the winery was purchased by Ambassador Alejandro Orfila.  Leon was well known in the wine industry as a highly respected winemaker with a passion for producing top quality wines.  He was also known as a friend that could be counted on if ever you were in need.

How My Friendship Evolved

I met Leon in the early 1990s while serving on a tasting panel that gathered each month to evaluate newly released wines. That first night I sat next to Leon and soon learned just how smart he was. There wasn’t a topic that I could toss his way that he didn’t have a quick and articulate opinion on. I also experienced his mischievous wit, and quickly came to appreciate his highly educated palate. We became fast friends and looked forward to each ensuing encounter.

Leon and I were also judges at the Monterey International Wine Competition, and in 2005 we decided to drive north together from San Diego. Though I had known Leon for many years at this juncture, and our conversations had always been lively and enjoyable, we rarely had time to sit down together for a long chat. This trip would be a different matter altogether.

For 8 hours up and 8 hours back Leon and I talked about politics, religion, relationships, business, world history, and most topics in between. You get a different sort of insight on a long stretch like that. It’s not about gluing snippets of disparate conversations together, as the nature of extended dialogue has a way of saturating the brain cells.  Conversations get real deep and quite meaningful, whether you intend them to or not. There’s no escape.

Those who knew Leon will tell you the man loved to carry on a conversation, and he could do so from sunup to sundown if you let him, but as much as he enjoyed the talking side of the equation, he was an amazing listener, counselor, and friend. And while I learned a hell of a lot about him during that road trip, I learned far more about myself, a profound experience indeed. Leon had a way of opening your eyes, not by telling you something, but by asking questions, the greatest form of teaching. And while his ego was intact, his humility always held sway.

Leon Santoro Tasting Wine

Being a Father

The following year I took my son, Bryce, up to visit the winery. I hadn’t seen Leon for a while, and because wine was such a big part of my life I wanted Bryce to see how a winery operated. It was also cool that Leon had a son, Ryan, who was about the same age as Bryce. Leon took us on a tour, explaining how each piece of equipment worked and describing the process of making wine in detail.

He was a busy man, with a million things to do, but he never rushed, taking his time to ensure that Bryce understood what he was saying and answering each question with the patience of a saint. I learned a lot about patience that day, and caring and connecting – I learned a lot about being a father too.

At the end of the tour he filled two wine glasses with a barrel sample of his Merlot and we went outside. While Leon and I sat on a picnic bench, Bryce and Ryan played with a soccer ball on the grass outside the barrel room. We joked about being old men with young sons, and talked about how cool it was going to be watching them grow up into young men, sending them off to college, and ultimately raising families of their own someday.

I realized in that moment that Leon had three priorities in his life; to be the best friend possible, to be the best husband to his wife, and to be the best father to his son. He also wanted to be the best winemaker, of course, but it was connecting to people that made his life rich beyond words, that put a smile on his face and a gleam in his eyes, and I always suspected that the main reason he made wine in the first place was simply to make people happy. He took such pride in serving others.

Leon Santoro talking about the vineyeard

Life and Learning

And as I sit here at the keyboard, with midnight rapidly approaching, I’m thinking about those rare people that have the ability to alter your life forever. A relative, a close friend, a girlfriend or boyfriend, or your spouse. Not because they try to, but because their happiness is, to such a large degree, derived from your happiness – the essence of unconditional love.

My saddest moment of the day came at the conclusion of the service when the pastor asked us all to remain seated while Leon’s wife, son and daughter exited first. As his son passed by my row the tears flowed freely – mine, not his.  I think Ryan was still trying to figure out what it all meant. The man who had been his father, best friend, guide and mentor would no longer be there for him. It wasn’t fair. It made no sense. How does a child understand that?

And I found myself thinking, “What if that were my son?” The thought devastated me, and I wondered if I had done everything possible for my son, or for my friends. Who had I neglected?  What wrong had I not righted? What had I done to change the world? Could I honestly say that humanity had benefited from my being here?

I still haven’t processed all that went on today, and I’m still grieving at the loss of a dear friend, but I do know that Leon not only changed my life while he was here, he continues to change my life now that he’s gone. And as the tears flow freely once again, I’ve come to realize that life is not just about helping others while you’re here, it’s also about leaving a legacy that continues to change lives once you’re gone.

I never had the chance to tell Leon this while he was alive, I can only hope he hears me now.

{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Manisha Shahane August 24, 2009 at 10:25 pm

All these months, your post has been waiting here for my eyes to absorb it fully. Through the manner in which you’ve shared these memories of your friend, I have also learned a lot more about you.

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Manisha Shahane August 25, 2009 at 5:25 am

All these months, your post has been waiting here for my eyes to absorb it fully. Through the manner in which you’ve shared these memories of your friend, I have also learned a lot more about you.

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Ian Woodward February 16, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Like you Mark, we learned of Leon’s passing from Carla’s Mother, and having read so many tributes like yours, I felt I would add a few thoughts.

That was a beautiful moving tribute to Leon and I thank you for your thoughts of your relationship with your own son. My wife Pat and I met Leon on his wedding day to Carla and only a few times after that, but we could see that he was a loving husband to Carla and their two children, Ryan and Amy.

We knew Carla and her Family when she was Ryan’s age, and our two sons grew up with them as we always met on “High Days and Holidays” and have happy memories of our times together. We grieve with them at their sad and deep loss but know they will be comforted through this hard time by her devoted parents and sister Stacy and her family.

Pat and Ian Woodward

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Ian Woodward February 16, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Like you Mark, we learned of Leon’s passing from Carla’s Mother, and having read so many tributes like yours, I felt I would add a few thoughts.

That was a beautiful moving tribute to Leon and I thank you for your thoughts of your relationship with your own son. My wife Pat and I met Leon on his wedding day to Carla and only a few times after that, but we could see that he was a loving husband to Carla and their two children, Ryan and Amy.

We knew Carla and her Family when she was Ryan’s age, and our two sons grew up with them as we always met on “High Days and Holidays” and have happy memories of our times together. We grieve with them at their sad and deep loss but know they will be comforted through this hard time by her devoted parents and sister Stacy and her family.

Pat and Ian Woodward

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Steve Sagen February 7, 2009 at 4:29 pm

Beautiful words and so very true. Phyllis and I extend our deepest sympathy’s on the passing of Leon to Carla and Family. Knowing Leon from the Quail Ridge days when I lived in San Francisco brings back so many great memories. I moved to San Diego in 1989 and what a surprise when Leon appeared the following year or so. I always believed that a wine took on the characteristics of its maker. The Leon I knew was generous, easy going, soft, mellow, very approachable and loads of enthusiasm jumping out at you. That is how I would describe some of the fabulous wines he produced.
Shalom,
Steve Sagen

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Steve Sagen February 8, 2009 at 12:29 am

Beautiful words and so very true. Phyllis and I extend our deepest sympathy’s on the passing of Leon to Carla and Family. Knowing Leon from the Quail Ridge days when I lived in San Francisco brings back so many great memories. I moved to San Diego in 1989 and what a surprise when Leon appeared the following year or so. I always believed that a wine took on the characteristics of its maker. The Leon I knew was generous, easy going, soft, mellow, very approachable and loads of enthusiasm jumping out at you. That is how I would describe some of the fabulous wines he produced.
Shalom,
Steve Sagen

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Alissa Sears February 2, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Mark,
Thank you for sharing such an amazing tribute to a true humanitarian representative of those things so many of us strive to be: kind, compassionate, knowledgeable, and most of all, giving. Your story has helped many people grow through Leon’s lessons who, like myself, may never have had the chance to meet him. Those lessons will continue to live on and be interwoven in the fabric of life through those he touched.

My grandmother also passed away this past Friday and I had immediately thought of this quote which seems very fitting for your dear friend, Leon. My best wishes to you.

“Those are a success who have lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who have gained the respect of intelligent people and the love of children, who have filled their niche and accomplished their task, who leave the world better than they found it, whether by a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of the earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best they had.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Alissa Sears February 3, 2009 at 3:26 am

Mark,
Thank you for sharing such an amazing tribute to a true humanitarian representative of those things so many of us strive to be: kind, compassionate, knowledgeable, and most of all, giving. Your story has helped many people grow through Leon’s lessons who, like myself, may never have had the chance to meet him. Those lessons will continue to live on and be interwoven in the fabric of life through those he touched.

My grandmother also passed away this past Friday and I had immediately thought of this quote which seems very fitting for your dear friend, Leon. My best wishes to you.

“Those are a success who have lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who have gained the respect of intelligent people and the love of children, who have filled their niche and accomplished their task, who leave the world better than they found it, whether by a perfect poem or a rescued soul; who never lacked appreciation of the earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best they had.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Gary Parker January 31, 2009 at 11:26 am

Leon had a wonderful way with with people, and I was lucky enough to be one of those to enjoy his company through the years.

I would echo the statement of Tim McDonald, and add; Leon, you will always be a part of this earth, both by what you have done with it, and for the example you set for those of us remaining. You have made us better souls.

Blessings and strength to his family. He was a gem.

Mark, thanks for this opportunity to express. Your tribute was really moving.

Gary Parker

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Gary Parker January 31, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Leon had a wonderful way with with people, and I was lucky enough to be one of those to enjoy his company through the years.

I would echo the statement of Tim McDonald, and add; Leon, you will always be a part of this earth, both by what you have done with it, and for the example you set for those of us remaining. You have made us better souls.

Blessings and strength to his family. He was a gem.

Mark, thanks for this opportunity to express. Your tribute was really moving.

Gary Parker

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Steve Pessagno January 30, 2009 at 10:21 pm

To Leon’s Family,
Having lost my father a few weeks ago I feel your angst and know that the great memories ultimately pull you through. Leon was such a gentle and genuine person. We met for the first time 14 years ago at the very first Monterey Wine Competition and I always looked forward to conversing over the weekend. He was full of life. We will all very much miss him this year.
Steve Pessagno

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Steve Pessagno January 30, 2009 at 2:21 pm

To Leon’s Family,
Having lost my father a few weeks ago I feel your angst and know that the great memories ultimately pull you through. Leon was such a gentle and genuine person. We met for the first time 14 years ago at the very first Monterey Wine Competition and I always looked forward to conversing over the weekend. He was full of life. We will all very much miss him this year.
Steve Pessagno

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Tim McDonald January 30, 2009 at 10:33 am

I am always humbled by people who I have met or known well in our wine business. Leon will always be a very special person to me as I am sure he was to so many. I am sad to hear of his early departure. I am happy that I was able to know him, laugh with him, taste wines with him, and I will miss him. I hope that his family knows how many hundreds of folks were touched in special way by that association. I wish that it wasn’t so. God bless this terrific man, we are all a bit better because of him. Tim

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Tim McDonald January 30, 2009 at 6:33 pm

I am always humbled by people who I have met or known well in our wine business. Leon will always be a very special person to me as I am sure he was to so many. I am sad to hear of his early departure. I am happy that I was able to know him, laugh with him, taste wines with him, and I will miss him. I hope that his family knows how many hundreds of folks were touched in special way by that association. I wish that it wasn’t so. God bless this terrific man, we are all a bit better because of him. Tim

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Trisha & Rick Bostrom January 30, 2009 at 9:51 am

Hi there Mark. We don’t get to see you as often as the past and miss that. I wanted to acknowledge the “thought-full” moments you brought to us with this Memorial to Leon. I took it home to Rick last night and we recalled our memories of him. They brought smiles to our faces.

Our connection with Leon came working with the SDIWC over the past 25 years. Leon had been a judge for many of them, as you know. He was also always one of the first wineries each year to submit his wines, and “last” to ship! But come the Friday night of the judging weekend, Leon would be sure they arrived. I can remember many Verifications with boxes containing notes – “On It’s Way.” Kathy St. Jean and I would always laugh about it! Orfila wines have won numerous awards over the years and Leon’s success as well as his generosity was shared by all the volunteers.

For three years, Rick and I were in charge of arranging the wineries to pour for the Wine & Roses events. Leon “always” generously brought Orfila to be poured and “always” asked for his favorite spot – the southeast corner of the Aventine building patio. Many times Ryan was his assistant, precocious and knowledgeable. Heaven help us if we placed Orfilia anywhere else!

Our favorite conversation with Leon was when he learned that Rick’s family had a local county ranch with acreage. Leon immediately wanted to know the elevation, sun exposure, weather patterns and water supply. We almost caught the bug from him!

Rick and I will miss our friend Leon, but will always remember with smiles, his presence in our lives.

Rick & Trisha Bostrom

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Trisha & Rick Bostrom January 30, 2009 at 5:51 pm

Hi there Mark. We don’t get to see you as often as the past and miss that. I wanted to acknowledge the “thought-full” moments you brought to us with this Memorial to Leon. I took it home to Rick last night and we recalled our memories of him. They brought smiles to our faces.

Our connection with Leon came working with the SDIWC over the past 25 years. Leon had been a judge for many of them, as you know. He was also always one of the first wineries each year to submit his wines, and “last” to ship! But come the Friday night of the judging weekend, Leon would be sure they arrived. I can remember many Verifications with boxes containing notes – “On It’s Way.” Kathy St. Jean and I would always laugh about it! Orfila wines have won numerous awards over the years and Leon’s success as well as his generosity was shared by all the volunteers.

For three years, Rick and I were in charge of arranging the wineries to pour for the Wine & Roses events. Leon “always” generously brought Orfila to be poured and “always” asked for his favorite spot – the southeast corner of the Aventine building patio. Many times Ryan was his assistant, precocious and knowledgeable. Heaven help us if we placed Orfilia anywhere else!

Our favorite conversation with Leon was when he learned that Rick’s family had a local county ranch with acreage. Leon immediately wanted to know the elevation, sun exposure, weather patterns and water supply. We almost caught the bug from him!

Rick and I will miss our friend Leon, but will always remember with smiles, his presence in our lives.

Rick & Trisha Bostrom

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Liz Rose January 29, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Dear Mark:

Living in Colorado, I only had the chance to meet Leon twice; at his and Carla’s wedding and once on a personal visit with the family. The qualities you mentioned, though, were clearly visible. He was such a warm, welcoming person, that he made me feel like an honored friend. Your tribute, and especially the pictures, brought back what I know of Leone, and it was much appreciated.

Thank you!

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Liz Rose January 30, 2009 at 4:43 am

Dear Mark:

Living in Colorado, I only had the chance to meet Leon twice; at his and Carla’s wedding and once on a personal visit with the family. The qualities you mentioned, though, were clearly visible. He was such a warm, welcoming person, that he made me feel like an honored friend. Your tribute, and especially the pictures, brought back what I know of Leone, and it was much appreciated.

Thank you!

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Steve Kozyk January 29, 2009 at 4:28 pm

Mark,

I never met Leone, but of course was the beneficiary, along with so many others, of his hard work, vision, and great wines. So sorry to hear of his passing. Hang in there.

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Steve Kozyk January 30, 2009 at 12:28 am

Mark,

I never met Leone, but of course was the beneficiary, along with so many others, of his hard work, vision, and great wines. So sorry to hear of his passing. Hang in there.

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Rich Cook January 29, 2009 at 9:04 am

Leon will be greatly missed in the San Diego wine community. He was the kind of guy that always added more value to every situation and conversation. I was honored to work with him each year at wine competitions and through his sponsorship of the San Diego County Fair Homemade Wine & Liqueur Contest. I posted a small tribute at WineWiseWeb – http://www.winewiseweb.com/Site/In_Memorium.html
Peace & Blessings to his family.

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Rich Cook January 29, 2009 at 5:04 pm

Leon will be greatly missed in the San Diego wine community. He was the kind of guy that always added more value to every situation and conversation. I was honored to work with him each year at wine competitions and through his sponsorship of the San Diego County Fair Homemade Wine & Liqueur Contest. I posted a small tribute at WineWiseWeb – http://www.winewiseweb.com/Site/In_Memorium.html
Peace & Blessings to his family.

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Allen Palmer January 28, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Leon and his family were neighbors and friends of my daughter and son-in-law and children in Escondido. The children played together virtually every day. We lived in Texas and when we visited, our time was never long enough to get seriously acquainted with this family. Being a man who always wished he had been born in
Italy, and have loved almost anything Italian, I really wanted to get to spend time with Leon, but never was permitted that time. I shall always regret that. I have several photos of Leon, and still have a few bottles of wine he gave to my wife and me. I’ll always remember him. My heartfelt grief and the very best of wishes for his family. I know what it like to lose dear, much loved family, having lost my dear
brother and one of his children in a terrible car accident many years ago, losing my mother much too early, my father, my sister, and then my only son, again much too early. God bless Carla and the children.

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Allen Palmer January 28, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Leon and his family were neighbors and friends of my daughter and son-in-law and children in Escondido. The children played together virtually every day. We lived in Texas and when we visited, our time was never long enough to get seriously acquainted with this family. Being a man who always wished he had been born in
Italy, and have loved almost anything Italian, I really wanted to get to spend time with Leon, but never was permitted that time. I shall always regret that. I have several photos of Leon, and still have a few bottles of wine he gave to my wife and me. I’ll always remember him. My heartfelt grief and the very best of wishes for his family. I know what it like to lose dear, much loved family, having lost my dear
brother and one of his children in a terrible car accident many years ago, losing my mother much too early, my father, my sister, and then my only son, again much too early. God bless Carla and the children.

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Carina Wheatley January 28, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Thank you for a beautiful tribute to Leone, Mark. As a close friend to the family, I can tell you that Leone fought so hard to stay here for us, Carla, and the kids. We know that people have the ability to leave impressions in our lives while they live and love with us, but as you’ve so eloquently written, some can leave footprints by their absence. Leone has touched as many by his death as he has in his living. He knows what is in your heart and he is smiling!

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Carina Wheatley January 28, 2009 at 8:56 pm

Thank you for a beautiful tribute to Leone, Mark. As a close friend to the family, I can tell you that Leone fought so hard to stay here for us, Carla, and the kids. We know that people have the ability to leave impressions in our lives while they live and love with us, but as you’ve so eloquently written, some can leave footprints by their absence. Leone has touched as many by his death as he has in his living. He knows what is in your heart and he is smiling!

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Kang January 28, 2009 at 12:53 pm

Im sorry for your loss – I guess that’s why we must cherish what we have in life, Life isnt always rainbows and butterflies, but when we look back, one cannot help but smile at all the good memories we have had together.

Im sure Leon would have been so happy to have had such an impact on your life and in a way, he lives on in the hearts and minds of those who love him.

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Kang January 28, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Im sorry for your loss – I guess that’s why we must cherish what we have in life, Life isnt always rainbows and butterflies, but when we look back, one cannot help but smile at all the good memories we have had together.

Im sure Leon would have been so happy to have had such an impact on your life and in a way, he lives on in the hearts and minds of those who love him.

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Carla January 28, 2009 at 11:28 am

Mark- What a heartfelt way you have captured the spirit of Leon, my husband. I was grateful that you came to his services & that you created this as a gift from one friend to another.
Your gift to him will always be here for me & our children.
Thanks from deep in our hearts.
Can you email me your contact information please (last name & address ?)
-Carla

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Carla January 28, 2009 at 7:28 pm

Mark- What a heartfelt way you have captured the spirit of Leon, my husband. I was grateful that you came to his services & that you created this as a gift from one friend to another.
Your gift to him will always be here for me & our children.
Thanks from deep in our hearts.
Can you email me your contact information please (last name & address ?)
-Carla

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pays to live green January 28, 2009 at 7:46 am

Sorry to hear about the loss of your great friend. It’s wonderful that you had such great memories with him and got to enjoy your friendship with him while he was still here. Thank you for sharing Leon’s life with us and the great friendship you had with him.

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pays to live green January 28, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Sorry to hear about the loss of your great friend. It’s wonderful that you had such great memories with him and got to enjoy your friendship with him while he was still here. Thank you for sharing Leon’s life with us and the great friendship you had with him.

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TheRiverWanders January 27, 2009 at 1:39 pm

I’m sorry for your loss, and thanks for reminding me of the value of each day and each person in my life.

Namaste.

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TheRiverWanders January 27, 2009 at 9:39 pm

I’m sorry for your loss, and thanks for reminding me of the value of each day and each person in my life.

Namaste.

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Karl January 27, 2009 at 9:20 am

The only way to take the sorrow out of death is to take love out of it.
-Unknown

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Karl January 27, 2009 at 5:20 pm

The only way to take the sorrow out of death is to take love out of it.
-Unknown

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Kilroy_60 January 27, 2009 at 9:04 am

I’m sorry to hear of your loss.

Among the important things in life true friendships rank with those that are most valuable.

You’ve written a wonderful tribute.

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Kilroy_60 January 27, 2009 at 5:04 pm

I’m sorry to hear of your loss.

Among the important things in life true friendships rank with those that are most valuable.

You’ve written a wonderful tribute.

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Stacy Kamala Waltman January 27, 2009 at 5:56 am

What a beautifully written story Mark. Thank you for sharing this tale with us from your heart and for honoring this wonderful man. I so wish I had known him while he was still among us. He sounds remarkable.

Blessings,
Stacy

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Stacy Kamala Waltman January 27, 2009 at 1:56 pm

What a beautifully written story Mark. Thank you for sharing this tale with us from your heart and for honoring this wonderful man. I so wish I had known him while he was still among us. He sounds remarkable.

Blessings,
Stacy

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