IEEE-USA Leaders

Jim Leonard (1936-2015): A Life of Service & Accomplishment

By Chris McManes

Perhaps it was fitting that Jim Leonard’s work on military weapons prevented him from talking much about it. He was a humble man who didn’t go around drawing attention to himself.

For more than half a century, Leonard served his country, his employer and his profession with distinction. On 11 May, the former IEEE-USA president and IEEE Fellow’s journey came to an end. He was 79.

“Jim was a low-key kind of person, but he always got things done,” said Paul Kostek, an independent systems engineer who met Leonard in the late 1980s. “Jim was the type of guy who was intellectually curious, always looking for a new challenge or opportunity, so it wasn’t in his nature to retire.”

In 2013, Leonard celebrated his 50th anniversary as an IEEE member and Boeing employee.

“He was a really dedicated engineer,” 2011 IEEE-USA President Ron Jensen said. “Even though he was on an executive level at Boeing, he was truly an engineer, and carried that forward into his broader experiences and responsibilities.”

Leonard embodied the role of engineer as creative problem-solver.


Kostek, who like Leonard served as IEEE-USA president (1999) and IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems (AESS) president (2000), recalled that Leonard enjoyed working on “his little 40-acre farm there in Missouri–but I think he really enjoyed working with people on solving technical problems and dealing with the issues that IEEE-USA and the societies dealt with.

“So I think that’s why he stayed engaged. He was contributing, and for him that was probably the most important thing, that he had an active role and was driving direction in the way things were being done.”

Washington University in St. Louis, from which Leonard earned one of his two master’s degrees, honored him with an Alumni Achievement Award in 2013. In a video the school produced, Mike Goodall of Boeing had this to say about his former colleague:

“He’s a zealot for engineering–engineering science–[and] you can nickname Jim, “the scientist of engineering’ for Boeing,” Goodall said. “He aspires to see others better themselves, in the community and in the workforce.”

A Life of Accomplishment & Service

Leonard’s death came just a few days before the start of the IEEE-USA Annual Meeting in Milwaukee, casting a pall over an otherwise uplifting event. IEEE-USA President Jim Jefferies honored Leonard during the meeting, and recalled knowing him for the past 10 years. Both were members of IEEE Region 5.


“Jim has been a friend and a partner that was by my side the entire time,” Jefferies said. “I met him at the first Region 5 meeting that I went to–and throughout that entire period–he was there as a friend and a helper, providing advice, input and support.

“He was a great individual to work with, and I’m going to miss him dearly.”

It was most appropriate for Leonard to be remembered at IEEE-USA’s yearly gathering because he was a fixture at the event for many years, and was instrumental in having Boeing on board as a major sponsor. He was the catalyst of the Boeing-IEEE partnership, which among other things, gave Boeing employees free AESS membership.

“IEEE had tried that with some other companies, but it didn’t really click,” Kostek said. “I think the Boeing-IEEE program was a success because Jim was willing to be out there kind of leading all the activities that were going on.”

Although he could have left the working world many years ago, Leonard continued to work until retiring last year as a senior technical fellow with Boeing Military Aircraft & Missile Systems in St. Charles, Mo. An expert in aircraft weapon systems, he was one of only 62 Boeing technical leaders out of a science and engineering workforce of about 59,000.

“His contributions in the field of weapons systems integration have had a significant technological and economic impact in the military weapons industry, and have played a vital role in national security,” Leonard’s Washington University alumnus profile said.

One of Leonard’s final roles with Boeing was to integrate the U.S. Navy air-to-surface Harpoon and Standoff Land Attack Missile into Navy, Air Force and international fighter planes. His idea was to convert “dumb” bombs, which simply fall to the ground, to “smart” bombs-missiles– using an electronic sensor system and control system to guide them to a specific target. 

“He was well-respected for his work within the U.S Navy for his technical accomplishments in creating the smart bomb concept,” said Kostek, himself a former Boeing engineer.

Flying in His Blood

James V. Leonard was born in Akron, Ohio, on 25 Jan. 1936, to Howard and Fannie Lee Leonard. His mother took him at a young age to live on a grandfather’s farm in Choestoe (cho-ee-sto-ee), Ga. His relatives there often recounted the story of an ancestor who had supposedly invented a machine capable of taking flight well before the Wright Brothers in 1903.

Through diligent research, the tale turned out to be true. Micajah Clark Dyer, one of Leonard’s great-great-grandfathers, filed a U.S. patent for “Improvement in Apparatus for Navigating the Air” in 1874.

Leonard, a professional engineer and co-inventor on 13 U.S., two Australian and one European patent, examined Dyer’s patent extensively.

“Because of the technology in the 1870s, there was not much of a power source available, such as a gasoline engine, but the story is–not substantiated–that Dyer did build an aeroplane,” Leonard said. “The drawings on the patent indicate to me that it had an airbag, some rudders and navigable surfaces.

“The rumor is that he was able to fly it across the cornfield in Choestoe, Georgia. This is unsubstantiated, only word of mouth passed down through the ages.”

Sylvia Dyer Turnage–a cousin of Leonard’s–recounted the story in “Georgia’s Pioneer Aviator Micajah Clark Dyer.” A replica of Dyer’s machine was built but not the full scale model Leonard and Turnage desired. Leonard reached out to the Smithsonian Institution and the Georgia Tech Research Institute to build it.

“Jim went to his rest without locating anyone to build the plane,” Turnage said. “I hope that’s not what they say when I go.”

Working for Flyers & Honoring Them

In an August 2005 Boeing Frontiers feature story, William Cole described how Leonard used to fly on military aircraft to see firsthand how his ingenuity was being deployed.

“This is the kind of hands-on experience you can never get from a school book, or from a video or sitting in an office,” Leonard said, adding, “I need to be able to walk in the shoes of the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way, to make sure they can use my product.”

Military planes weren’t new to Leonard; he served in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. As a child, according to Cole, he was inspired by the World War II exploits of two uncles: one an infantryman and one a pilot who flew a B-24 Liberator bomber that played a key role in securing victory for the United States and its Allies.

Leonard and his wife, Barbara, would spend part of each Christmas season in Hawaii (and would send IEEE-USA staff a tin of Macadamia nuts). It was there that he helped the Opana Radar Site achieve recognition as an IEEE Historical Milestone. This radar detected and tracked the Japanese planes that bombed Pearl Harbor for 30 minutes, the first time the United States used radar in wartime.

Leonard brought visibility to another historic achievement, when he initiated the proposal to have John Glenn’s flight aboard Mercury Spacecraft MA-6 recognized as an IEEE Historical Milestone. His effort was approved by the IEEE Board of Directors in 2011.

Six years earlier, the IEEE Board approved another of Leonard’s historical milestone nominations, the Taum Sauk Pumped-Storage Electric Power Plant.

Respected & Honored Worldwide

Leonard was named an IEEE Fellow in 2010 “for contributions to the integration of military avionics.” He was elected a fellow of the St. Louis Academy of Science in 1998 and was a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society of England.

He began his IEEE affiliation in 1960, when he became a student member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (AIEE), while working towards his EE degree at the University of Akron. The AIEE and the Institute of Radio Engineers merged in 1963 to form the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). That same year, he began working at McDonell Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997.

Leonard’s IEEE volunteer service positions include, among many others, AESS president (2006-07), Region 5 director, St. Louis Section chair and Region 5 PACE chair. His contributions were well-recognized. Among his many IEEE honors:

  • IEEE Centennial Medal (1984)
  • United States Activities Board (USAB, now IEEE-USA) Achievement Award (1986)
  • Region 5 Outstanding Member Award (1991)
  • USAB Award for Distinguished Contributions to Engineering Professionalism (1996)
  • IEEE Millennium Award (2000)
  • AESS Pioneer Award (2011)
  • AESS Exceptional Service Award (2011)

In 2008, Boeing recognized Leonard and two colleagues with a Special Invention Award for an air launch system interface they developed. The award commemorates the company’s “top innovators and inventions.”

For more on Leonard’s many accomplishments, see

Linking IEEE-USA with the Birth of Aviation

In 2003, Leonard’s year as IEEE-USA president coincided with the 100th anniversary of powered flight. That July, Erv Gangl, one of Leonard’s fellow AESS volunteers, made sure IEEE-USA and AESS had a presence at a large anniversary celebration in Dayton, Ohio. Leonard, Gangl and others staffed the exhibit.

“I felt it was important for IEEE-USA to be here,” Leonard said, “because even though it’s a professional organization, it is part of the overall IEEE.”

The cost of IEEE’s 10-by-20-foot exhibit, which included a 100-year avionics timeline, was shared by AESS and IEEE-USA. “It is another example of the cooperation among IEEE organizational units that results in a quality IEEE product,” Leonard said.

IEEE sharing in the centennial celebration exemplified Leonard’s desire to have the organization shine among sister societies and the public.

“He was extremely dedicated to IEEE-USA and IEEE as a whole,” Jensen said. “He seemed to have a special fondness for IEEE-USA and wanted to make sure that we succeeded in one form or another.

“He was just tremendous from that standpoint.”

“Jim was going strong into his seventies, still producing products, and also working closely with IEEE,” Kostek said. “He was pretty amazing.”

Rest in peace, my friend.  


Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager and attended the 100th anniversary of powered flight celebration in Dayton, Ohio–at Jim Leonard’s invitation.


Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Back to top button