Lawyer almost needed one himself

Monday, August 12, 2002

By Ron Sylvester
The Wichita Eagle

Looking every bit the distinguished lawyer in his designer suits, starched collar, silk ties and spit-shined shoes, it’s tough to believe David Leon almost didn’t make it out of high school.

“I must have flunked 14 classes,” said Leon, who ran with a wild crowd at North High School.

Leon, 37, looks back now and sees that he might have been on a path to prison.

He did end up in front of a judge, but as a lawyer defending people charged with crimes who remind him of some of the folks he ran with in his younger days.

“I grew up with all kinds of people into all kinds of things,” Leon said. “Some of the people were treated unjustly. But some, they were on negative paths.”

Leon also grew up watching his father, Phillip, work as a defense lawyer in the courtroom. David Leon brags that his dad was the first Mexican-American to graduate from a Kansas law school.

Phillip Leon built his practice representing many people in the Chicano community and Mexican immigrants who found themselves in trouble.
The middle son among three brothers and three sisters, David Leon grew up in a close family.

“We were the Chicano Brady Bunch,” Leon said. “I guess that made me Peter.”

Phillip Leon cultivated in his children an interest in the history of the Americas and the family’s pre-Columbian Indian heritage.

But David Leon learned from an early age that there’s a difference between being Mexican and being a Chicano.

“We’re Americans, so we do things an American way,” David Leon said. “We go to Mexico, and they just laugh at us.”

Fellow bar members say Leon’s sensitivity to cultural diversity helps him in the courtroom.

“He cares a lot about racial problems, and he’s very philosophical about that and he’s sensitive to other people,” said Warner Eisenbise, a veteran Wichita lawyer. “That helps him in his profession. He’s not in this business to make a ton of money. He’s a very good lawyer. But he’s got other interests, too.”

Leon embraced a significant part of the Chicano identity, the low-rider automobile, at age 14.

Low-riders, the souped-up cars that operate on bouncing hydraulics, originated in California in the late 1940s as a response to the hot-rod racing craze of white teenagers. Leon now promotes the Reflections Car Show, an exhibition held Easter weekends in Wichita.

“If I had a choice, I’d rather be working on cars than practicing law,” said Leon, a self-taught mechanic.

But the legal profession affords him the luxury of what can be an expensive hobby. He has three hydraulic-powered cars – a 1963 Lincoln Continental, a 1985 Pontiac Firebird and a 1992 Pontiac Sunbird. He drives to work in a red Suburban with low-rider tires.

Law school, however, once seemed impossible with Leon’s academic missteps in high school.

That all turned around when he went to work for Cherry Orchard Furniture. Owner Marino Garcia, a self-made businessman who fled to Kansas from Cuba after Fidel Castro’s takeover, saw wasted potential in the young Leon. Garcia made a promise: Leon would always have a job at the store, as long as he stayed in school. Garcia would work Leon’s schedule around classes.

Leon stopped hanging out with his friends and partying. When he wasn’t delivering and fixing furniture or working in the warehouse, he studied.

“In college I learned an important term called delayed gratification,” said Leon, the father of two sons, 3 and 1. “It’s putting off the good times now so you can have something later. Now, it’s later. I’m having my good times now.”

Leon enrolled at Wichita State and earned a 3.75 grade-point average studying history. The classes on early American history, where he learned about the Bill of Rights and Constitution, convinced him to follow his dad into the law.

“I’m as pro-law enforcement as anyone, but our founding fathers knew you have to have safeguards to protect the government from overreaching,” Leon said. “You’ve got to police the police. That’s what I think I do in my law practice.”

Leon earned his law degree from Washburn University School of Law, and between his practice and car hobby he didn’t forget the favor he received from a local furniture store owner. Over the past 10 years, Leon said, he has helped more than 200 Hispanic youngsters enroll at WSU.

After all, one of Leon’s most startling lessons in law school brought him face-to-face with what could have been his future – in a prison.

As a new student at Washburn, Leon went on a class tour of the Lansing State Correctional Facility. Inside the prison, he ran into more than a dozen inmates who used to be buddies in high school.

These were guys who were on the same path Leon had started on in high school They were glad to see him.

“Hey, when did you get in?” Leon remembered them saying.

“Hey, dude,” Leon answered, “I’m only here for the day.”