J. Kenneth Leithman, a core member of the group of "Young Turks" who modernized the operations of the Louisiana House of Representatives in the early 1970s, died Monday, July 10. He was 86.
Leithman, who owned a Gretna insurance agency, told an interviewer in 2004 that track was his second love, behind only his family. After his retirement from politics in 1984, he established the men's and women's track programs at the University of New Orleans.
Born in 1930, Leithman attended St. Aloysius High School in New Orleans and Loyola University.
He was 33 when he first ran for elected office, winning a seat on the 17-member Jefferson Parish School Board in 1963. "We reduced the board to 11 members, then seven," Leithman said in 2011. The reformed board won passage of a sales tax to finance a teacher pay raise and a bond issue for new schools and repairs.
The 1960s momentum for social change made itself visible in the Legislature in 1968 with the arrival of the Young Turks, including Leithman.
Another Young Turk, E.L. "Bubba" Henry, recalled the freshman legislators' first gathering in the Capitol House Hotel in Baton Rouge. "Kenny was in the middle of all that and always very enthusiastic and very supportive of our efforts," Henry said. "He was a good, good citizen."
The Young Turks' gatherings were not highly organized but evolved naturally from their shared interest in effective government, Leithman said during a 2004 reunion of the Young Turks at McNeese State University. The men often met at 6 a.m., as there were no meeting rooms where they could gather in the Capitol.
"We were surprised to find what we didn't have to work with when we got to Baton Rouge," Henry said. The legislators had no staffs, and their only access to information about proposed legislation was through lobbyists, who roamed the House floor freely, sometimes casting votes when legislators were absent.
The presence on the House floor of family members, including sometimes unruly children, and lunch deliveries from advocacy groups only added to the chaos, which served to increase the influence of the governor and other power brokers.
The Young Turks won major changes in the operations of the House, including providing space for offices and meeting rooms, financing House staff and research services, removing lobbyists from the House floor and bringing accountability to the appropriations process.
By the end of their first four years, Leithman said, the Young Turks "had stepped on every toe in the state as far as special interests were concerned."
None of the Young Turks were defeated for re-election, however, and Henry was chosen as speaker of the House in 1972. Leithman was chosen as speaker pro tem, the first to hold that title in the state. Through the years, the Young Turks gathered for regular reunions.
Leithman "was part of a very special group of people," said Paul Hart Miller, a Boston hospital administrator who grew up in Lake Charles and got to know the Young Turks through summer jobs in the Legislature. "They were really going up against the status quo. And they were gutsy to do that. They had guts; they had integrity. I can't think of any scandals with those members."
Leithman's signature legislation, Act 754 of 1977, provided for the education of exceptional children, becoming a model for other states. He also led campaigns for bills to build the second Mississippi River bridge at New Orleans and the West Bank elevated expressway.
He holds two spots in the Loyola Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1995 as one of Loyola's greatest sprinters and again in 2002 as a member of the school's 1951 and 1952 track teams, which won back-to-back Gulf States Conference championships. In 2005, Loyola awarded him the St. Sebastian Award for his support of athletics off the field of play.
Track remained central to Leithman's life after college. He was coach of the Fourth Army Area track team in the All-Army Championships at Fort Jackson during his two years in the Army.
For 25 years, he directed the West Bank Lions Relays, then the largest high school meet in the South. He coached Gretna runners for years, playing key roles in organizing meets and the New Orleans Track and Field Officials Association.
Survivors include his wife, Cynthia Tillotson Leithman; two children, J. Kenneth Leithman Jr. and Lauren Leithman Karam; and three grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated at noon Tuesday at St. Anthony Catholic Church, 924 Monroe St., in Gretna. Visitation will begin at 10 a.m. Interment will be in Westlawn Memorial Park Cemetery.