Leonard Skinner, 77, gym teacher and namesake of Lynyrd Skynyrd band, dies

By T. Rees Shapiro
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Leonard Skinner, 77, a high school physical education teacher who was the improbable namesake of the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, died Sept. 20 at a nursing home in Jacksonville, Fla. He had Alzheimer's disease.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Skinner was the by-the-books basketball coach and gym teacher at his alma mater, Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville. He had a reputation as a disciplinarian and was a stickler for personal appearance.

One day, Mr. Skinner sent a smart-aleck student named Ronnie Van Zant to the principal's office because his hair was touching his collar -- a flagrant violation of the school's dress code.

"It was against the school rules," Mr. Skinner -- who had a flattop haircut for most of his life -- told the Florida Times-Union in 2009. "I don't particularly like long hair on men, but again, it wasn't my rule."

Mr. Skinner left the high school in 1969 to become a real estate broker and bar owner and had completely forgotten about the brush with Van Zant until he got a phone call from an out-of-town friend.

Van Zant, who was later suspended from the school for other rules violations, decided to get back at his physical education teacher by renaming "One Percent," his fledgling rock band "Lynyrd Skynyrd."

Shortly after the release of their 1973 album, "(pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd)," Lynyrd Skynyrd became one of the most in-demand acts of the 1970s, playing such signature hits as "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Free Bird." They played to sprawling crowds at concerts with the Confederate flag as a backdrop -- an homage to their Southern roots.

At first, Mr. Skinner later said, he was peeved at Van Zant for mangling his name and repurposing it for his band's moniker.

Mr. Skinner eventually warmed up to the rockers, and even introduced them at a homecoming concert in Jacksonville. For the group's third album, Mr. Skinner let the band print a picture of his real-estate sign on the inside cover.

For many years, he would get voice mails on his business line from curious Lynyrd Skynyrd fans seeking to speak to the real Leonard Skinner.

"He embraced it," Mr. Skinner's daughter, Susie Moore said in an interview. "As he got older, he mellowed and then he was able to embrace all types of music, really, even country."

Still, in the 2009 interview with the Times-Union, Mr. Skinner said he never developed a taste for Lynyrd Skynyrd's repertoire.

Instead, he made his musical tastes absolutely clear: "I don't like rock 'n' roll music."

He was born Forby Leonard Skinner in Jacksonville on Jan. 11, 1933.

After graduating from Robert E. Lee High School in 1951, Mr. Skinner attended Florida State University, where he was a fraternity brother of Burt Reynolds and a 1957 physical education graduate.

He spent two years in the Army but hated it, his daughter said, because he had to wait in line to get food in the mess hall.

He owned and operated a bar called The Still in Jacksonville, to which he later added his name after the band's surge in popularity. He sold it in the mid-1980s. It is now a topless bar.

On Oct. 20, 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd's private plane crashed near McComb, Miss. Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and four others were killed, and other band members were severely injured.

In an interview after the crash, Mr. Skinner expressed remorse about the death of onetime troublemaker Van Zant.

"They were good, talented, hardworking boys," Mr. Skinner said in 1977. "They worked hard, lived hard, and boozed hard."

Besides his daughter, of Jacksonville, survivors include his wife of 54 years, Rosemary Jones Skinner of Jacksonville; a son, Leonard S. Skinner of Jacksonville; and two grandsons.

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