For many years the James R. Leonard Community Center served as a valuable community resource and safe haven for youth like Clifford “Cliff” Thomason. A leader in our community today, Cliff is bringing his past experiences with the Leonard Center and his own role models full circle by supporting local youth — the next generation of community leaders.
One of Cliff’s earliest role models was his father James “Jim” Thomason Sr. who was also affectionately known as Cowboy due to his love of westerns and predilection as a youth for roleplaying as a cowboy in the children’s game Cowboys and Indians. Cowboy was a pastor for over 20 years at Love Outreach Church and had a heart for the community always helping those in need.
“My dad definitely had a very impactful influence on my life spiritually and also just how I carry myself,” Cliff said. “Some people act differently when they’re in front of people than when they’re at home, but my dad was always the same. I strive to always be that way, what you see is what you get, and I really admire how my dad was consistent in everything he did.”
In a close-knit family with his mother, Bertha, and older brother, James Jr., Cliff learned the importance of community and giving back from an early age.
“Our language of love would be giving, gifts of service,” Cliff said. “Seeing others smile, being able to give others what they need and not expecting anything in return — when you give you can’t help but receive.”
Cliff was a constant presence at the James R. Leonard Community Center during his youth since it was located at the Cleveland Elementary School gym near his childhood home. Established in 1982, it was named in honor of the late James R. Leonard who was a community-driven educator with a passion for recreation. The center thrived for many years and offered a range of programs focused on education and recreation. Common programs were home economics, basketball, boxing, computers, job training, science and dance.
One of the faces of the Leonard Center was James Jones — commonly referred to as Mr. Jones or Jonesy around the community — who taught full-time from 1975 to 2008 in the Port Huron Area School District and spent much of his summer as a youth leader for the Port Huron Recreation Department. Between 1982 and 2002, he worked in several leadership roles at the Leonard Center and was heavily involved with its extensive basketball program, of which Cliff was an avid participant.
“I’ve known Mr. Jones for a long time,” Cliff said. “He was a mentor to me and like a second father. He was always around to do something for us. Just one of those community guys who had no hidden agenda, just wanted to impact kids. Education was very important to him because he was an educator, but also providing opportunities for kids … I think he helped shape a lot of us to become who we are now in society.”
In addition to basketball, Cliff also participated in job training, community service and tutoring where even then he made a difference in other people’s lives.
“I remember he [Cliff] was tutoring a little boy with special needs and when I talked to the boy, I guess he just didn’t get the attention that he really needed,” Mr. Jones said. “He said he’d never been successful in school, he wanted to learn but basically, no one would help him and Clifford did. Cliff really inspired that young man. He tutored him in math, at first he didn’t know two times two equals four and then he started getting some math problems right and the boy was really excited. That’s one thing I remember about Cliff, he touched that boy’s life. I will never forget that.”
The Leonard Center closed for several years before it was reopened in 2021 with Cliff’s support, once again offering recreational opportunities as well as a performing arts program led by Tony Miller.
“Once we created our corporation, The Athletic Factory, Marion Stewart and I talked about how we could get the Leonard Center back open,” Cliff said. “We were all impacted by the Leonard Center, it was a safe haven for all of us.”
“It’s just a blessing, I’m very glad that he’s one of those who have stepped up and are trying to work with some of the young kids growing up now, trying to help them out and expose them to real good positive things to do,” Mr. Jones said.
Dr. Patricia “Pat” Leonard, the daughter of James Leonard whom the center is named after, said she is glad to know that the center is operating again and appreciates the work Cliff is doing.
“The center I think, itself is a great tribute to my dad, but it used to be a hub of activities in the south end of the city,” Pat said. “The people that I know that are my age, who are now senior citizens, still talk about when they used to go to the center, but even the generation before when it was just the old gym lounge area, their parents went to that center … It’s too nice of a facility and the kind of things that it could offer to that community, and did offer for many years, are critical.”
Over time, Cliff plans to continue expanding the programming for youth at the center and hopes to incorporate additional programs and opportunities appealing to a wide range of interests.
“I always like to be laser-focused on what we know how to do really well and then gradually add things versus these ten ideas all going on this summer where your infrastructure is then weak and it doesn’t work,” Cliff said. “My plan is at some point to have a lot of programming that Mr. Jones had, maybe not the same, but a similar concept where there are multiple activities and opportunities for the kids.”
In addition to his work with the Leonard Center, Cliff is the executive director and co-founder of The Athletic Factory and serves on the Community Foundation’s Board of Trustees and Scholarship Committee. He and his wife, Kristi, live in the same area he grew up in near the Leonard Center and have a blended family with their four sons, Kabik, 32, Anthony, 32, Jovon, 25, and Andre, 24, and two daughters, Santia, 20, and Olivia, 17.
“It’s a full circle moment, really, because now I understand,” Cliff said. “I understand, personally, the commitment that he [Mr. Jones] had to make and also how important it is that I have my wife’s support.”
Now with the newly-reopened Leonard Center, Cliff hopes to create an even greater impact on local youth. He is thankful for the guidance he received from his father and Mr. Jones, which helped shape him into the person he is today and inspired him to follow a similar path by making a difference in the community.
“I want people to always remember how important this location and this community center is,” Cliff said. “To never forget about what Mr. Leonard did and how community-focused he and his wife were and why they chose to name it after him, but also continue that legacy Mr. Jones established and, hopefully, never let it run out again.”
“I’m very proud and I thank God for him that he’s helping these young people out,” Mr. Jones said. “He’s off to a good start.”
This is the second installment in a series of stories highlighting community leaders who are making a difference today due to the guidance and influence of previous generations of changemakers who empowered them to make an impact.
Related: Leonard Center inspired generations of leaders such as Tony Miller