Willie Leon Pope, pioneering black journalist

Willie Leon Pope
Willie Leon Pope
Posted: August 15, 2014

Willie Leon Pope, 71, of Williamstown, a pioneering black journalist who honed his reporting skills on the streets of Philadelphia, died of esophageal cancer Saturday, Aug. 9, at Kennedy University Hospital in Washington Township.

Mr. Pope began his career in 1963 as a copy boy at The Inquirer, essentially as one of its first black journalists. He later spent three decades at the Press of Atlantic City, where he covered police, courts, minority affairs, politics, and the casino industry and wrote "The Street Scene."

"He was a good, kind man," said Acel Moore, associate editor emeritus of The Inquirer. "People enjoyed being around him."

Mr. Pope was among the early organizers of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists in 1973. He served as the minority staff recruiter for the Press, mentoring journalists of color.

Herbert Lowe, a past president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said Mr. Pope "helped me feel and believe that I belonged" when he landed his first job at the Press.

"I have worked many places since, and had some measure of success, and am always mindful of the debt that Leon - and other pioneers like him - paid so I could have a journalism career," said Lowe, a former Inquirer reporter and now a journalism professor at Marquette University.

Mr. Pope was a much-beloved figure in the Press newsroom, where he was known for his frantic deadline typing, said former colleague Stephanie Loder, now a reporter at the Asbury Park Press. He was a frequent guest at social functions hosted by coworkers, she said.

"He was a larger-than-life person," Loder said. It wasn't a party until Mr. Pope showed up."

Fondly called "Pope" by most who knew him, he married the love of his life, Wilma Burgess, in 1974. The couple raised her nephew, William, and niece, Keisha, as their own after the death of her sister.

According to friends, Mr. Pope developed his people skills by playing one-on-one basketball with his Bartram High classmate and NBA great Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, by driving a cab, and by selling fish on a Philly street corner. He loved music, especially jazz. He tried to play the saxophone, but never mastered it, recalled Moore. Mr. Pope and his wife enjoyed seeing Patti LaBelle, another Bartram classmate, perform in Atlantic City.

"Leon was an old-school, nuts-and-bolts newspaperman. He was up for any assignment, and he always delivered," said Paul Merkoski, former executive editor of the Press. "He suffered politicians, editors, and coworkers with equal charm and grace."

Born in 1943 in Washington, Ga., Mr. Pope was the eldest son of three children. He was educated in the parochial and public schools of Philadelphia and graduated from Bartram High in 1961. He attended Philadelphia Community College for two years before the Army drafted him in 1964. He served as a clerk typist in Vietnam, earning several medals for marksmanship, good conduct, riflery, and service. He was honorably discharged in 1970.

Mr. Pope later served as a campaign manager for Phil Savage during an unsuccessful bid for the Second Congressional District seat in Philadelphia.

In addition to his wife of 40 years and his niece and nephew, he is survived by a sister, a brother, and a host of other relatives.

A viewing will be held Friday, Aug. 15, from 9 to 10 a.m. at St. Matthew's Baptist Church, 245 Glassboro Rd., Williamstown, followed by services at 10 a.m. Burial will be at the Gloucester County Veterans Memorial Cemetery, 240 Tuckahoe Rd., Williamstown.


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