“This is Leon Pantenburg,” Karen Chaney said, introducing the young man standing next to her. “He’s the canoeist of the week.”
Leon’s face broke into a big grin, so I knew he didn’t take himself too seriously.
The date was Saturday, Oct. 24, 1980, about four in the afternoon. Karen, then city editor of The Vicksburg Post, had brought Leon to the Old Court House Museum where I was director. I had once worked for the Post, and canoeists on the Mississippi River were not unusual, though most seemed to think the feat had not been accomplished by anyone since La Salle.
After a few pleasantries, Karen told me Leon probably wouldn’t be in Vicksburg but about four hours. Did I have time to take him through the park?
After a tour of the Vicksburg National Military Park—I took with us a Danish journalist sent to America to cover the election between Reagan and Carter—we went to Goldies for some good barbecue. By then it was dark. The Dane had to catch a plane in Jackson, so I suggested to Leon that it was too late to pitch a tent on a sandbar, so why not go to my house for the night?
It was the beginning of a long-time friendship.
Leon was from Ames, Iowa, where he grew up on a farm along with six sisters and a brother. He had the typical part-time jobs most high-school boys had along with tending to farm chores. After high school, he graduated from Iowa State with a double major, journalism and English, and later earned graduate credits at Wayne State.
Leon began his canoe trip at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, planning not to stop until he reached the Gulf of Mexico, but at Port Sulphur, La., he was told by the Coast Guard he could go no farther because of safety concerns. He called me, and I headed south in my pickup and brought him and his canoe back to Campbell Swamp (which is where I live near Yokena, south of Vicksburg).
Leon visited the newspapers along the way, looking for interesting people. Having his name in a local paper, telling about his trip, would give him credibility, “and showed that I was not just a vagrant, that I was socially acceptable.” he said.
Plying the Mississippi wasn’t his first such adventure. He had walked the John Muir Trail—225 miles of rough terrain in the Sierra Nevada—had traversed the Thorofare Loop in Yellowstone and had hiked Death Valley.
A river trip would be different, with unusual sights and people each day. Besides, he said, if he wrote about hiking a mountain trail, “what would I see all day—the same thing over and over—and what would I write except, ‘My feet hurt today’?”
He remembers seeing the river a few times when he was a youth, but it was Mark Twain’s book about Huck Finn that grabbed his interest. Leon was in the sixth grade, and when he pulled the book from off the shelf, it wasn’t required reading, but he was so enthralled with it that he skipped recess to see how it ended. A teacher discovered him reading instead of being outside playing ball. His punishment would have been for him to stay in where he would read more books—and his teacher suggested additional books he might enjoy.
Mark Twain’s writings about the Mississippi River were seeds planted in Leon’s mind. They matured to the point that years later, at age 27, he was on his way down the Father of Waters.
He did meet a lot of interesting people along the way, wrote the book and “saw it rejected by 13 publishers, some of them very prestigious.”
Back in Vicksburg, Leon kept postponing his departure. He wrote in his journal, “I like these people!” and then, paraphrasing John Denver, he added, “I feel like I’ve come home to a place I’ve never been before.”
With his winning smile and gregarious nature, Leon made friends instantly and soon he was part of the community, not just “the Yankee who came to supper.” He did some substitute teaching before landing a job with The Vicksburg Post.
At the newspaper, he did what all reporters are expected to do: He wrote crime stories, obituaries and features. He got lucky and won an award “that impressed some people” and went to Washington, D.C., for the presentation. That led to a job in the capital where he became editor of the Pentagram newspaper.
A friend from Vicksburg, George Halford, was also living in Washington, and he was invited to attend a picnic and a Statler Brothers concert with Leon and his staff. When George showed up, he was helping carry a cooler. Holding on to the other handle was a pretty girl: Debbie Pickens from Vicksburg.
Debbie’s mother, Ethel, knew Leon and told him to contact her daughter, but he had not had time. Debbie was director of classifieds for USA Today.
Leon and Debbie married and later moved to Idaho and then to Oregon where Leon was on the staff of the Bend, Ore., newspaper, The Bulletin, and also on the faculty at Central Oregon Community College.
A few years ago they decided to move back to Mississippi. They chose Brandon because Debbie’s parents lived there. Oregon was a very expensive place to live, plus 50 inches of snow in the winter made the heat of the South more inviting. And the nest was empty: son Daniel lives in Portland, Ore., daughter Mary is in Los Angeles and son Jimmy is deceased.
Back in the state, Leon would not only be close to the river, but he felt at home for another reason: Mississippi is the birthplace of American music, and Leon plays the fiddle and especially likes old-time country.
He plays his great-grandfather’s fiddle (his great-great-grandfather was also a fiddler). Before he took up the fiddle, when he was a child, his mother bought him a harmonica. He got his first guitar when he was 17 and the next year purchased a Yamaha FG300. He wanted to play the banjo like Grandpa Jones, but when he picked up that century-old fiddle, “It just felt right,” he said.
Leon wanted to start a wilderness survival school in Mississippi. He was disgusted with the so-called reality TV shows, and he began a web site, Survival Common Sense, which he thought about 30 people might read, but it has gone international. He also works with the Quapaw Canoe Company, which provides guided canoe trips for people from all over the world.
Of the many people Leon met on his trip down the river, there was one in particular he’ll never forget, for she was a prophet. She was Mildred Rushing from Lake Providence, La. She was also a reporter; it was she who told him to look up Charlie Faulk in Vicksburg at the Post, which is where he met Karen Chaney.
“I knew nothing about the South,” Leon said. Mildred quizzed him about his life, and then told him the South was a land of the most beautiful women and he’d never get out of the South single. He thought of that when he met Debbie Pickens who had been Miss Vicksburg and was in the finals for Miss Mississippi. Soon she became Mrs. Pantenburg.
Vicksburg felt like home, and now it is home. Leon teaches a class in communications for a home school group, is a member of the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society, attends Yokena Presbyterian Church and plays music with his friends. Whenever he gets a chance, he likes to walk in the woods of Campbell Swamp.
When life comes to an end, Leon wants his ashes placed in Malena’s Creek by the cabin Elvadee, which he helped build. The waters from the creek flow into Jim Bayou, which merges with Price Bayou just before it enters the Big Black River—and then into the Mississippi River.
Finally, Leon will reach the Gulf of Mexico!
This story is by Gordon Cotton. Cotton is the curator emeritus at the Old Court House Museum. He’s the author of several books and is a renowned historian.See a typo? Report it here.