An organization that plays a role in the racial integration of Tennessee's neighborhoods and schools has — after nearly 100 years — installed its first black president.

Tennessee Realtors last weekend swore in veteran Memphis broker Leon Dickson to lead their 24,000-member association.

Recent past presidents took the stage to pass the gavel at The Peabody on Friday evening during the association's annual awards and installation banquet. The lineage stretches back to 1920-21 with the founding president, Nashville's George R. Gillespie.

Leon Dickson is the new president of the Tennessee Realtors Association.
Leon Dickson is the new president of the Tennessee Realtors Association. Yalonda M. James / The Commercial Appeal

More than 500 people attended the event whose theme, "Crossing the Bridge,'' was carried out with elaborate decorations. As guests neared the banquet room, they walked down a corridor made to look like a highway approach to a bridge, complete with trusses, road striping and highway signs. At the doorway to the hall guests stepped up and over a small bridge.

"I'm honored and humbled by this experience,'' Dickson said during his inauguration speech. "But what would be even greater would be for each one of us to find a bridge to cross for the first time in the coming year.''

"Crossing the bridge'' could mean that members invest for the first time in the Realtors' political action committee, take a leadership role, acquire a broker's license, serve on a Realtors committee, attain a professional-development designation, attend the National Association of Realtors convention, or even become a multimillion-dollar producer, said Dickson, owner of Benchmark at Southwind Realty.

Dickson focused on the topic of leadership in his inauguration address, never mentioning race. Much of his speech was an appreciation of his parents, Henry Lee and Prince Ella Dickson. He described them as the "dean'' and "teacher'' in the education on commitment and responsibility he received growing up at home.

Dickson, who served as president of the Memphis Area Association of Realtors in 2011, takes pride in fulfilling commitments. Like the time about 20 years ago when a stranger at his gym added too much weight to a barbell before asking Dickson to be on standby in case he were to drop it while performing bench presses.

And that's what happened. As the 305-pound load plunged toward the man's chest, Dickson grabbed it, saving the man from injury. But Dickson ruptured a disc doing so, requiring surgery and keeping him out of the gym for seven years.

"Anything I start, I have to finish it," Dickson has said. "I stress the same thing to my two children. He and his wife, Mary, have two grown children, son Leon Jr., and daughter Morgan.

"It is shocking to say, and most kids would never admit, but my father has never steered me wrong,'' Morgan told the audience in her emotional introduction.

"If you ask him a question, and he doesn't give you the exact answer you want, take it from me, he's not out to get you and it's not because he dislikes you,'' Morgan said. "It's because by giving you the answer he's only providing you with a temporary solution. So instead, he talks you through your question and teaches you the principles that will lead you to your answer. Every time you will be able to create your own solution in the future.''

Leon Jr. teased his father and the crowd by beginning his speech with a number — 714 — that he would not explain until the end of his remarks. Meanwhile, he told stories, like the time his father traveled with a cancer-stricken friend to Houston, Texas, for her treatment.

As for 714, Leon Jr. concluded about his father, "That is the number of months God has given you to be the great and inspiring man you are and I'm thankful and pray that he grants you another 714.''

After the ceremony and before the dancing, Leon Sr. said he was inspired by what he had heard, especially from his children. "You don't always realize that people see you the way they see you,'' Dickson said.

"And so now that I realize my kids see me a certain way, that compels me to go to another level.''

Tribune Content Agency