Leon West, widely revered by his party as the root of success of the Democratic Party in Porter County, died Wednesday in McKinney, Texas at 88. West was the Porter County Democratic Chairman from 1994 to 2007, but he had been nurturing his party’s pathway decades earlier.
Former Portage Mayor Doug Olson said West was a Democratic precinct committeeman in Portage when it was incorporated as a city in 1968. “Leon was one of the main founders,” he said.
“He always felt like the Democrats were for the common folk,” said his wife Beverly. “Old times they always thought that and he just believed that way.”
West was born Sept. 17, 1934 in Arkansas and met Beverly after moving to Indiana. The two were married on Nov. 17, 1956 at the church she had attended since the age of 5, Garyton Covenant Church in Portage.
West was drafted into the United States Army in October 1957 and then worked for U.S. Steel’s Gary Works for 42 years, eventually rising to run the machine shop. The couple built their home at 6316 Mulberry Ave. and lived there until moving to Texas.
West served many years on the Portage City Council and also on the Porter County Council, among other bodies. Olson served with him on the Portage City Council in the 1980s.
“He was a force. He wouldn’t back down,” Olson said of those early years when Portage and Porter County had virtually no Democratic presence. “He did a lot in changing dynamics.”
It’s a sentiment that echoes in remembrances of pretty much everyone who worked with, and was guided by, him. Jeff Chidester, who succeeded West as Porter County Democratic Party Chair, said West was particularly gifted at matching candidates to offices.
“He held a lot of different positions so he had a lot of knowledge and expertise,” Chidester said. As county chairman a lot of people will come to you announcing what positions they want to run for, Chidester said. “With his expertise he knew who was a good fit,” he said.
Former Sheriff David Reynolds, who just finished 16 years as sheriff, was one such good fit. “Without question, I didn’t want to do it because I really liked my job as police chief (for the city of Portage),” Reynolds said. He believes he owes West a debt of gratitude for convincing him to run for public office, as do others such as Tom Webber and Nancy Vaidik.
“I think all of them would admit that Leon was the mentor to their campaigns,” Reynolds said.
Portage Mayor Sue Lynch can’t even remember how far back her relationship with West goes. “He was a hands-on guy. He mentored so many of us through the ranks,” she said. “When we did something wrong he let us know.”
Lynch said West was a strong party leader who was always there for his members. “He didn’t get paid for those jobs,” she added. “He was a true public servant.”
In fact, West was honored by the governor of Indiana with the highest honor in the state — the Sagamore of the Wabash — in recognition of his volunteerism. “He was just a good man. Honest man. Good husband, dad, granddad,” said his wife, Beverly. “It didn’t matter what party they were, he was willing to help. He got so much joy out of that.”
Lynch and her late husband Jim were not only political cronies of West and his wife, but personal friends as well. Jim and Leon played poker together and after the Wests moved to Texas they kept regular tabs on their hometown.
“Everyone knew them as a couple,” Lynch said. “Even when they were not here they were always concerned about what was going on in Portage.”
Leon took his caring spirit with him to Texas when the couple moved there in August of 2007. He was a Meals on Wheels volunteer for over five years and tutored second graders in reading for four years.
The Wests have three children and six grandchildren. Services for West will be held Feb. 25 at Creekwood Methodist Church in Allen, Texas and he will be cremated and buried in a military cemetery located between Dallas and Fort Worth.
Shelley Jones is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.