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Executive Profile

He's Old School
Wilmington architect Leslie Boney Jr. builds friendships
the same way he builds schools – with passion and concern

By Phil Kirk

The term southern gentleman fits renowned Wilmington architect Leslie Boney Jr. to a tee. Others have used the words “modesty” and “grace.” Not only is he polite to everyone he meets, but he also goes the extra mile to be helpful. One hardly ever sees Boney at a public gathering without a camera in his hand. Then a few days later, notes and pictures arrive in the mail from Boney to surprised participants at the various events.

He writes personal letters on every subject imaginable nearly every day of his life. Some go to lifelong friends. Others go to acquaintances, and still others to people he has never met. “We get so much mail every day,” the Wilmington architect says. “When you see a personal letter, it means something. On a recent night, I thought about three people who needed a positive word, so I wrote to each.” One was a contemporary of Boney's who's suffering from prostate cancer. Another has Alzheimer's, and the third had suffered a stroke.

Boney often uses his unique sense of humor to aid someone who is suffering. “Writing is becoming a lost art,” says Boney, who turned 80 in January. “Not only are we losing the art of expressing our ideas in writing, but the techniques of writing bridges gaps between people.”

He blames part of the loss of writing skills and personal-touch letters on computers. “Learning to write by hand is disappearing,” he says. Boney seems to look for unique ways to please people. Recently, a friend mentioned to him that he was a graduate of a new high school in Rowan County nearly 40 years ago. Shortly thereafter, Boney surprised that person by sending him the original cover of the architectural drawings for that school.

He relates well to both adults and children. A family from Raleigh spent a week at Boney's beloved Wrightsville Beach last summer. Boney and his wife, Lillian, prepared dinner and served it at a beach club. The next day, he sent T-shirts from his architectural firm, soft drinks, and passes to use at another beach club. That type of personal contact and sincere interest in people has made Boney a much-loved, admired and respected man.

He also has a keen memory, perhaps aided by his constant note-taking during conversations with about everybody he meets. He recalls hearing an especially meaningful sermon on grief and bereavement from Sam Houck, a Presbyterian minister, many years ago. A decade after hearing the sermon, he wrote Rev. Houck and asked for a copy. While he didn't have an exact copy, the minister reconstructed some of his ideas and sent them to Boney, who has since shared the thoughts with more than 100 people. He has kept meticulous notes in a small day-timer for the past 40 years. He keeps up with where he stays (and its cost); names, including spouses; phone numbers; and other helpful information.

What factors have shaped the life of the native of Wallace? Family is paramount in influencing Boney's entire life, and he is well known for his attention to many details — large and small — in his family.

His father, Leslie, was born in Wallace in 1880. He was one of six children and went to a one-teacher school. He and a sister were the only two of the Boney children who went to college. The elder Boney earned a textile degree from N.C. State University in 1903 and was offered a job at Cone Mills. Instead, he decided to take a draftsman's job in an architect's office in Greensboro. He later worked for architectural firms in Wilmington, Goldsboro, and Florence, S.C.

The current Boney firm was begun in 1922 after his original partner, James F. Goss, died. Leslie Jr.'s mother was Mary Lily Hussey, who was born into a merchant's family in Duplin County. His dad was 37 when he married and Leslie Jr. was 34 when he married. “Mother was a great spirit. She was witty and wrote great poetry,” Boney says. “She was a teacher in Swansboro and she loved to raise orchids.” That appears to be where he got his knack of writing, his keen sense of humor, his love of education and his appreciation of the beauty of flowers.

With a mother and father whom he deeply loved and respected, Boney took his time in finding the “right one” with whom to spend the rest of his life. He met Lillian in 1954 at a dancing class in Wilmington. “She was not only pretty, but a good dancer, too,” he says with a gleam in his eyes. “She was also intellectually stimulating. She has a good mind, is a lot smarter than I am, and she remembers everything. She can tell me what we had for supper 10 years ago.” The Boneys married after dating for five years and their happy union has produced two daughters and a son, who in turn have given the Wilmington couple six grandchildren.

Conversations with Boney on any of the numerous subjects on which he is qualified to discuss almost always return to talk of his family. For example, in this interview, he wanted to be sure Lillian's most recent honor of being selected as UNC Wilmington's Distinguished Citizen for her many lasting contributions to the community was mentioned.

Their first daughter, Emmett Hargrove Bellamy Boney, is an attorney specializing in mediation in Raleigh. She attended Pine Manor College in Boston and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her interest in law may have been inherited from her mother's father — a lawyer, state senator, and father of the “Ports bill” that created the prosperous Wilmington port. She's married to Hubert Haywood III, an internist, and they have two children, Lilly and Hubert IV.

The second daughter is Mary Grist Bellamy Boney, a Duke undergrad and also a UNC law school graduate. She is an attorney in Washington, D.C., who specializes in intellectual property issues. She has represented the U.S. State Department in international conferences, and her parents went to Fukvoka, Japan, last year to hear her presentation. She lives in Alexandria, Va., and has two children, Mary Catsby and James D. Denison IV.

The third Boney is Leslie III, who is well-known in Raleigh circles as a former TV newsman and as a key player in the Hunt administration who has led special projects on welfare-to-work, rural economic issues and volunteer programs. He is married to the former Margaret (Ret) Autry, and they have twins Grace Autry and Leslie IV, who were born on April 26.

Boney offers this advice on raising children: “You have to love and support them. You have to give them the opportunity to be who they are and who they want to be. And you try to be as supportive as possible.” Brother Charlie says, “His children are outstanding young adults, attorneys, and public servants.”

While the older Boney professes no disappointment that none of his children became architects, that profession has been one he has loved in every respect. Becoming an architect “just seemed a natural way of life,” he says. “I had seen my father working with people and building things. I really never knew much else as a boy. I suppose my father thought I would become an architect.”

The younger Boney briefly considered going to Davidson because he liked what he saw there on a visit to a Presbyterian church meeting. N.C. State's strong architectural program won out, however. He admits to having an advantage in his field because of the work of his father. “I started off with some advantage since my father was an architect. I inherited his name. That's something special, and I'm very proud of it.”

Family tradition is a hallmark of Boney Architects. Eight family members have combined their skills to offer architectural services since the early 1900s. Three sons of Leslie and Mary Boney were major partners in the firm. William J. Boney died in 1993, but Charles H. Boney is still active, along with Leslie Jr. Sue Boney Ives, their sister, serves as corporate secretary. They have another sister, Mary Boney Sheats, whom Leslie calls “the scholar in the family.”

“He is a very good architect in every respect,” Charlie Boney says. “He's a dedicated leader in our profession and he is uncompromising in his pursuit for excellence in design. I have been very proud as his brother to walk with him through 50 years of collaboration in work — and indeed play — as my tennis doubles partner every Saturday for years.” (Leslie was captain of the tennis team at N.C. State.) Charlie says his brother has been his mentor in all areas of his life — “a teacher, a great strength in my decision making, a constant companion.”

Paul Davis Boney is the CEO of the firm, which employs 70 people at offices in Wilmington, Raleigh and Charlotte. The Boney firm is best known for its 1,500 educational projects, which are spread in 70 of North Carolina's 100 counties. “I have also tried to bridge the gap between school superintendents and architects,” Boney says. “For example, in about 1960, we established an annual school planning conference to bring the two groups together.”

Eddie Anderson, the director of facility planning for the New Hanover County Schools, says Boney “has a sincere and unsurpassed interest in the education of all children. He is a pioneer in school architecture and continues to lead his profession in the area of education and educational facilities. In Wilmington, you would only need to visit our schools to immediately recognize the impact he has on education in our community.”

The architecture profession has changed dramatically during Boney's career. “When I came out of N.C. State, I could do everything that was connected with the design of a building,” Boney says. “I could write specifications for every aspect of the building — electrical, plumbing, heating — everything about the structure.” He adds in his typical sense of humor, “Of course there was no air conditioning back then so I can't do that.” Now, he points out that architects most often specialize in one narrow field. That along with the use of computers in drawing plans are the two biggest changes in the profession.

Boney also notes tremendous changes in the whole electronic field in schools, plus an increase in the flexibility of designs. “You want to be able to make changes within the schools in the future that are not even contemplated when they are designed. The Davis Library at UNC, one of Boney's favorite projects, is an example. “It's a very large building — it has over 500 closed carrels,” he says. “We don't know what the future will bring to the way students study. Vertical shafts have been provided at the columns, and the heating and air conditioning is more sophisticated.” The library is the Boney firm's largest project with more than 10 acres of floor space.

He worked with Dr. James F. Govan, who was the university librarian at that time. “My relationship with Mr. Boney was very comfortable,” says Govan, who is retired and living in Chattanooga, Tenn. “He was well informed and skilled in keeping abreast of his profession. I am proud of our work together. It was one of the highlights of my career.”

Boney uses his experiences in the changing field of architecture to plug one of his favorite passions — a good public education for everyone. “For example,” he says, “school janitors in the early days needed to basically know how to sweep and fire the furnace. As a practical matter, no longer can we hire uneducated janitors.”

Boney is an unabashed admirer of Gov. Jim Hunt, a fellow N.C. State graduate. “I think Jim Hunt has created a solid base of general interest in public education. He has given us a vision that has led to accomplishments we could never have dreamed of years ago.” He points out the successes of Smart Start and improved teacher salaries. “The entire education reform movement is trying to recreate the image and respect teachers used to enjoy,” he says. “In the early part of the century, the teachers were the most highly respected people in the community, along with the ministers. I have a feeling we're on the way to restoring this feeling.”

He also loves his alma mater. “N.C. State has been very good to me,” he says. “It gave me the basis for a very good professional education and has provided me with opportunities to return the favor by helping the university.” Boney was placed on the university's search committee for a new chancellor when Dr. Carey Bostian expressed a desire to return to the classroom. Dr. John Caldwell was hired and “he brought the golden age to N.C. State.”

Boney says each chancellor has brought special talents to the university's top administrative post. “I like Marye Anne Fox (current chancellor at NCSU),” he says. “ She's a hard-working person, and she's not resting on her laurels. She has high ambitions for State, and she will get us there.”

Boney's friends are as plentiful as the plaudits they send his way. “He is a scholar, a writer, and North Carolina's foremost architect of educational facilities, but the distinguished gentleman from Wilmington is an even greater person,” says Dr. Jim Sims, the retired superintendent of the Anson County Schools.

William Wadsworth once said, “The best portion of a good man's life are his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.” For Leslie Boney Jr., generosity, concern and compassion are the cornerstone of his life. He is that rare combination of remarkable ability, philanthropy and genuine humility. The active Boney says he has no plans to slow down. “As long as I feel productive and I'm making a contribution, I will continue,” he says. “A lot of what I contribute to the firm is intangible.”

COPYRIGHTEED MATERIAL. This story first appeared in the October 2000 issue of the North Carolina magazine.

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