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  • Spark. We are all born with it, but only a few of us have the courage, imagination and fortitude to let it grow into a flame of our personal best that lights up the world, even long after we move on.

    I met Leslie Perry over a year ago. An old, sunny man at a local quirky hangout, The Coffee Gallery, greeted everyone who came in -- friend and stranger alike -- with a big, genuine smile.

    We never exchanged a word. Sometimes he was quietly writing, sitting alone with a cup of cooling java. More often though he was talking to or laughing with others, swapping stories and having an apparently great time.

    Even to the casual bystander I was then, Leslie is -- and was -- an integral part of our community landscape, and an epicenter of creative energy and deep wisdom, the true value of which I have since come to recognize. He is, and was, a renowned storyteller who built his art on his African-American roots, and transformed it into a treasure box filled with the best of world culture.

    Preoccupied with my own stuff, I hadn’t stepped out of my way to introduce myself to him until Julie Sandoval, the coffee shop’s owner and friend, asked me to join the community efforts to capture Leslie’s storyteller legacy in a book of his stories and plays.

    I went to a community performance fundraiser towards this cause and left the evening swept off my feet with the creativity and spirit of Leslie, and of the people who loved him.

    I also learned of his illness, the ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) known better as the Lou Gehrig’s disease, and was humbled by the strength of Leslie’s life force, his bright Spark, despite of it.

    Most of all I was impressed with Leslie’s ability to deeply connect with others, regardless of their age, gender, and personal circumstance. Storytelling art and craft are his bridge; an open heart, deep empathy, rich life experience and great sense of humor are his solid pillars. They elevate Leslie’s influence above the fears and prejudices that separate us, and leave us ignorant of our own and each others’ spark of possibility.

    Shortly after we met and became friends, Kalen Tolces, a 21-year old barista at the gallery, connected with Leslie despite – or maybe because of their generational gap. She started visiting him weekly at his assisted-living home. They shared stories and he encouraged her to write more. Their visits inspired them to put together a shared anthology which I volunteered to design and publish.

    Proofreading the final draft this afternoon has been a very bittersweet process for me. Diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago with ALS Leslie was given at most 2 years to live. His first book " The Story Man" and now his second and likely the last one: "Wednesdays with Leslie" kept him physically and mentally with us, past his doctor's assigned expiration date.

    Today we are 6 months into his overtime countdown. When his swan song is sung, and published, he will likely lose his remaining momentum. Constant excruciating pain all over his body makes everyday harder for him to fight. Reluctant to complete this and put away his reason for holding on, I stalled the book's design, now I see maybe too long. I hope we'll make the publish date when he can still experience and enjoy it.

    74-years old -- Kalen's grandfather’s and my father’s age -- Leslie brought into our lives qualities so hard to find today: patience in listening, openness in understanding without judgment, candor with respect in speaking up, drive for perfection, desire to give of himself, hunger for knowledge and ideas, and tenacious perseverance in face of his own pain and mortality that would have stopped most in their tracks.

    No matter where the Spark takes Leslie next, or where he takes his Spark … I am forever grateful for having been a part of the kindling to stoke and fan his creative flames out to the world at large.
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