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NEWS | Oct. 10, 2007

A prime example of a cherished life

By Shauna Heathman 437th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

If anyone understands the value of making the most out of what they've got, Leon Baldwin does.

Legally blind and relying on a prosthetic leg, Mr. Baldwin has certainly faced some difficult consequences throughout the years. However, his realness, friendly demeanor and playful wit paint nothing less than an image of happiness, self-assurance and peace.

Mr. Baldwin, assistant manager, has been employed with the Charleston AFB supply center since 2004. The store, tucked away in the corner of the base, guarantees the warmest of welcomes upon entering. Mr. Baldwin's friendly hospitality reflects his philosophy on customer service.

"I make it a point to greet every person who walks in the store and to acknowledge their presence," said Mr. Baldwin. "It's important to me; I believe it's something we should all do -- and if you're acknowledged, you acknowledge back. There's times where the customer doesn't respond and I'll say something like, 'Oh, having a bad day?' Sometimes that doesn't go over so well and my co-workers joke with me about it. I'm working on that."

It's hard to imagine Mr. Baldwin ever upsetting anyone; his demure tone telling the story is a sign he means no harm but stresses his point: to be acknowledged and acknowledge back is to treat people as individuals as opposed to objects.

"I do get angry sometimes," he said. "But if so, I walk away, take a break and do something else for awhile. I deal with it and get over it -- you have to. Not a day goes by there's something I'm not frustrated about but I keep in mind I'm very lucky."

Mr. Baldwin was diagnosed with diabetes when he was ten. In 1996, the disease caused him to go blind, but surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina brought his eyesight back.

In March 2004, he made one of the biggest decisions of his life. After a bad infection in his right foot, doctors told him surgery guaranteed a zero percent chance it would heal completely or that he'd walk again. He'd also be bed-ridden for a year.

"I couldn't lay in bed for a year. Financially I couldn't do it and I refused to put that on my wife and kids. So I sat and I prayed," he said leaning in as he accentuated his next statement. "And as I prayed, I swear 'the man' was sitting right next to me ... in less than a day I'd made my decision. Two days later my leg was removed."

The surgeon consulted him several times to be sure and he said his wife stressed the importance of his making the final decision. She'd support whatever choice he made.

"My choice left me with very few problems with my [prosthetic] leg. One time I was helping a customer in the store and my leg broke due to the screw coming loose ... I told everyone I got a flat tire," he said with a smile. "But for the most part, it's never an issue."

Mr. Baldwin has done the bridge walk several times and more often than not is the one waiting for his friends to catch up.

"I get on a pace and I just go," he said. "I get into a stride; sometimes my wife has to grab me when we're walking downtown to slow down."

A successsful transplant surgery in 2004 gave him a new kidney and pancreas. After 36 years, he was finally relieved of his diabetes.

Although he lost his drivers license and is considered legally blind, it's a great chance he won't ever go completely blind. Mr. Baldwin said it was difficult to give up driving and learn to rely on others to take him places.

"I lost patience and I learned patience in the process. I get frustrated but again, I consider myself a lucky one; I can see and get around," he said. "There are others who can't even do that and I can't imagine their frustration. I get more upset with myself than anyone else but I'm constantly challenging myself to do things and try my best. I'm a very hard-headed individual -- I get that from my mom."

Every day, Mr. Baldwin relies on two different rides to get to and from work. One ride takes him to one stop where Frank Bainter, his supervisor and store manager, meets him and they drive the rest of the way to work. At the end of each day, he rides home with Mr. Bainter and his wife picks him up from there. He stressed how transportation problems can be an annoyance, but this arrangement seems to be teamwork at its best.

"We all work together so well. It can be stressful, as with any job, but most of the time we're joking around. I love my job," he said as he began to laugh, "Although I have a hard time getting them to let me drive the forklift or the delivery truck."

Mr. Baldwin estimates he works 50 or more hours a week but is enthusiastic about what he does. Motioning to a pen and notebook with a quick glance, he said, "Yep, we made those." He also pointed out other objects, including the clock on the wall, which his company produced. When an available product is made by the blind, the supply center is required to sell that product instead of a different name brand to support blind or disabled employees.

"If all my workers were like Leon and had his same work ethics, my life would be 100 percent easier," said Mr. Bainter. "I have to chase him out of here to get him to take a day off."

His supervisor went on to say Mr. Baldwin was employee of the year for all military base supply center stores in 2005 and also employee of the month during this past year. If Mr. Bainter had the choice, he'd put him in for the award every month.

"My two sons can't get over how I still work and do things. They think, 'well if Dad can do it, then we should be able to do it.' To instill that work ethic in them is truly a blessing," said Mr. Baldwin.

It seems that Mr. Baldwin has perfected the balance between work and home life.

"The best part of my day is waking up every morning," he said. "I look forward to coming to work to do something I enjoy. But I also look forward to the end of the day when I can relax with my wife and enjoy my home life."

He has undoubtedly made the most of the Charleston area, whether it's going out to the lake, beach or going downtown and playing tourist.

"For our last anniversary I rented a limo and we drove around downtown," he shared. "We've done the carriage rides, we rent bicycles and ride in the side alleys downtown ... we love it here and all the people downtown."

His thoughts ranged from his surprise plans for his next wedding anniversary to the Hawaii vacation he'd like to take and dreams of living in a studio apartment in downtown New York City. In another life, he said he would be playing the drums in a live band, traveling around the world on tour.

"Oh, I would have loved to play in a live band," he said. "But if I did, I wouldn't have all that I have now. I've had opportunities to leave Charleston but I wouldn't. My roots are here; my family and friends are here ... I have to say I live a pretty fantastic life."