BROOKHAVEN – Ongoing conversations with old friends are the renewal of a pastime that never abates or diminishes in appeal. Earl T. Leonard Jr. in winter is pretty much the same as he was yesteryear except for limitations brought on by the calendar and the pandemic.

He pretty much spends his time reading, an old habit that dates back to his youth when he was the son of a weekly newspaper publisher, keeping up with the political scene and enjoying fireside chats at his Brookhaven residence with Bebe, his wife of 55 years.

Reflecting back to his time at the University of Georgia, I have enjoyed a refreshing friendship with this man of letters who is a down-home sage and a seasoned pontificator.

A conversation with him on any subject is likely to reveal that his intellect and widespread exposure, representing a U.S. senator and the Coca-Cola Co., make him a very sagacious and enlightening conversationalist.

Following a brief teaching career at the Henry Grady College of Journalism and law school, he spent three-plus years as the press secretary for Sen. Richard B. Russell, a job that whetted his appetite for the intoxicating environment of the nation’s capital and the business of politics.

One day while in Washington in 1963, I went by the Senate Office Building to see my friend. He disclosed that he was leaving his job with Georgia’s senior senator and would be going to work with the Coca-Cola Co. He would be succeeding Ovid Davis, who had been Coke’s chief lobbyist for a number of years.

Well-read with an historical bent, Leonard became passionately informed about political history. He would often suggest book titles for friends to consider reading. The historical biographies he recommended over the years were enlightening and insightful. He knew several Presidents and traveled much of the world.

When he retired from Coca-Cola, he underscored priority to giving back to his alma mater. In addition to his support of the Journalism School, he established, underwrote and originated the “Leonard Leadership Scholars,” a program in the Terry College of Business, which is designed for selected students to gain practical leadership skills beyond the classroom. He aspired for students to connect with real life experience and to meet established leaders in the field. As a result, he has opened doors for many future leaders in our society.

A vignette in his career that I have long enjoyed passing on came about in 1988, following the summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. Leonard was invited to the White House for a reception honoring the U. S. Olympic team. Coca-Cola has been a major corporate sponsor of the Olympics for years.

As he was in line, going through security, a lady member of the White House staff came up and asked if he were, “Mr. Leonard?” He nodded affirmatively. She then beckoned, “Please come with me.” Wondering if he might have done something wrong, he soon learned that he was headed to the Oval Office at the behest of President Ronald Reagan.

When he reached the Oval Office, he found the President reading a paper, which he put down and then said, “Are you the man from Coca-Cola?” Leonard replied, “Yes, Mr. President.”

Then Reagan said, “I have always wanted to ask someone from Coca-Cola this question. Why is it that Coca-Cola in a 6½-ounce bottle tastes so much better than in a larger container?” Earl was happy to answer the question. “Well, Mr. President that is a question that those of us at Coca-Cola often get,” Leonard explained. “Coca-Cola was designed to be consumed ice cold. In a larger container, larger than a 6½ bottle, say 12 ounces, it takes a consumer longer to drink. The container warms up in their hands or when just sitting idle on a table. The flavor slightly changes.”

Reagan responded by saying, “I never knew that. I have drunk Coca-Cola all my life in the small bottle, but you don’t see them much anymore.”

With that, Leonard offered to have delivered a supply of 6½ contour bottled Cokes to the White House on a regular basis.

An appreciative President said, “That would be nice.”

He then added, “Could you put them on the airplane as well?” That meant Air Force One, which Earl was happy to make those arrangements also.

His Coca-Cola relationship with the President aside, Earl T. Leonard was and remains a Reagan fan. “Ronald Reagan was a genuine person who connected to people probably better than any President since Franklin Roosevelt.”

The rest of the story is that I have been a long-time fan of a friend with plentiful stories to tell from a distinguished career brought about by an association with a soft drink that is enjoyed worldwide.

Loran Smith of Athens, the long-time sideline radio voice of the Georgia Bulldogs, writes a regular feature column.

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