Footprint of service

by Wally Northway

Published: November 24,2008

For a man whose frame stretched more than six feet, Leo W. Seal Jr. walked through life with the softest of footsteps. A consummate team player, Seal, who passed away Nov. 18 at the age of 84, was a lifelong winner who disdained accolades and attention. He wanted the victory, not the trophy.

However, while Seal walked softly, he left huge footprints that can be seen all along the Coast and beyond. He was a stalwart advocate for the banking industry, a champion of economic and community development, a staunch supporter of his beloved Mississippi State University and a trusted lay leader at his church.

His shoes will be hard to fill.

“People just don’t know how much he helped the Coast,” said Paul D. Guichet, vice president of investor relations and corporate governance at Hancock Holding, “and he preferred it that way by giving so much anonymously.”

‘Mr. Mississippi Banker’

Perhaps the most obvious place to look for Seal’s footprints is in the banking industry. Seal’s father, Leo Seal Sr., led Hancock Bank for 30-plus years, and Jr. took his place in 1963. He served as president of Hancock Holding to the day of his death, working sometimes from a hospital bed.

Under his leadership, Hancock Bank grew into a multi-state, full-service financial institution with the firmest foundation. To illustrate, Hancock Holding recently announced it would decline the federal government’s offer for assistance as the banking and finance industry struggles through the current crisis. The bank, it said, was fine. It has Seal to thank for that.

His mark is seen on the entire banking community. Mississippi Bankers Association (MBA) president McKinley “Mac” Deaver said Seal’s influence and impact on his association and the banking industry is immense. Not long ago, the MBA wanted to formally recognize Seal for his long service to both the association and the industry. His impact and accomplishments were so unique and immense that the group had to create a whole new recognition program.

“He was chairman/president of MBA in 1974,” Deaver said. “His father, Leo Seal Sr., had been president in 1944. So, Leo succeeded his father. This is not the only father-son succession, but it is unusual for that to occur.

“He and his bank were very active in the Bankers Association for many years. To this day, his bank is really involved in the industry’s causes.

“Two years ago at our annual convention, we honored Leo for 60 years in banking. We do a 40-year club and a 50-year club, but no 60-year club, but certainly wanted to recognize him. So, we honored him with a plaque at our convention. Harry Walker was the chairman, and presented him with the award. When doing so, he introduced him as ‘Mr. Mississippi Banker.’”

Common good

Bankers play an important role in economic and community development, and Seal was definitely a “player,” though as with all his other endeavors he shunned attention and credit. His biggest footprints are along I-10 on the Coast, but his influence, and reputation, was statewide and regional. Converting the Port of Gulfport to state ownership and helping land NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County are just two of his achievements, and he was a much-in-demand consultant for projects stretching from Louisiana to Florida.

Anthony Topazi, president and CEO of Mississippi Power in Gulfport, said, “Leo was a giant among business leaders and his legacy will live on. I know of no one who understood, practiced and fought for our free enterprise system more than he. Leo was instrumental in the development of South Mississippi. The business success Leo achieved gave him the means to quietly, and without fanfare, help thousands of people through the generous and continuous charitable gifts he made.

“Leo Seal was an inspirational leader, a giving soul and a man of God. We will all miss him deeply.”

Even economic developers who dealt with Seal sparingly knew of his character, integrity and ability to get things done. Robert Ingram was an economic developer at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg and in Greenwood/Leflore County before taking his current position as president and CEO of the Baldwin County (Ala.) Economic Development Alliance.

Ingram said he did not have the opportunity to work often with Seal, but knew him as a go-to guy. Interestingly, though he did not have a close relationship with Seal, Ingram, as most others do, refers to Seal by his given name as if they had been great friends, a testament to Seal’s interpersonal skills.

Ingram said, “I really never had many dealings with Leo, but his reputation was one of total integrity, great vision, strong involvement in issues critical to community, state and nation, and as a dedicated philanthropist.”

Bulldog forever

No one “rung the cowbell” louder for Mississippi State University than Seal, and nowhere is his footprints more pronounced than in Starkville. A scholar-athlete who played football for the Bulldogs, Seal always had time to support the university, and was quick to reach for his wallet not just for MSU athletics, but academics, as well.

John P. Rush, MSU vice president for development and alumni and CEO of the MSU Foundation, said, “The Mississippi State University family already feels the loss of Leo Seal, but his presence will always be with us because he was the kind of alumnus who exuded an enthusiasm for all things Bulldog. He unselfishly devoted his time to furthering Mississippi State’s mission and reputation while generously providing the resources to take the university to the next level of excellence. He will long be remembered as one of the university’s greatest ambassadors of giving and one of our state’s most valued citizens.”

Highlights of his service to his alma mater include:

• First became a member of the MSU Foundation board of directors in 1966 and maintained a presence until his death. Served as president of the board from 2000-2003.

• Served as vice chairman of the university’s first major gifts campaign, “The Campaign for Mississippi State: Serving Mississippi and Beyond,” and was a member of the steering committee for MSU’s current comprehensive “State of the Future” campaign, which has raised $450 million.

• Made the lead gift for the Leo W. Seal Family College of Business Complex.

• Made the lead gift for the Leo Seal M-Club building (named in honor of his late father, Leo W. Seal Sr.).

• Made the lead gift for the Templeton Athletic Academic Building.

• Other MSU giving includes the College of Business Leo Seal Jr. Distinguished Speaker Series, Seal Electronic Classroom, Seal Vice President’s Suite in the Hunter Henry Center, a variety of academic scholarships in business, engineering and forestry and support for the university’s Distinguished Scholars Program, which provides full four-year scholarships for the best and brightest incoming students.

Godly service

Seal’s selflessness was a huge plus in his efforts in economic and community development, but that characteristic was even more effective in his church work, which was very important in Seal’s life. In a setting where taking personal glory in achievements is not just inappropriate, but a sin, Seal was at his best.

Rev. Rick Brooks is now pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Tupelo, but was previously pastor at Main Street United Methodist Church in Bay St. Louis, where Seal was a member. Brooks said he came to depend on Seal as a lay leader with answers. He seemed to always be there when needed, quietly waiting to help or lead, a trait that proved a true blessing to Brooks in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that devastated Hancock County.

“After Katrina, Leo was the one I found to help me make a decision that was troubling me,” Brooks remembered. “It was just days after that devastating day of Aug. 29, 2005. Bay St. Louis, where we lived, was in shambles.

“I felt the pressure of a decision to make about treatment and clean-up work for church property, but most of the usual church leaders were scattered here and there, along with the general populace.

“I found Leo camping out in the back part of his damaged home on Beach Boulevard. He was a voice of calm reason and assurance about the decision that was before me. I left with the sense of an important burden lifted from my shoulders in a most trying and heartbreaking of times. This man who had always risen to meet the challenge of the business of the day did not let me down in my time of need.

“The thing that stands out for me about the legendary Mr. Leo Seal Jr. will no doubt share affinity with what you will hear others say in regard to his community leadership and philanthropy. Here was a man of untold means and influence, and virtually everyone knew it. But you would never know that by his demeanor or by the humble spirit he brought to worship or to the work of the church. Leo’s mother, Rebecca Seal, had been a primary mover and benefactor at Main Street church. Leo kept that tradition going and opened up other channels for the church to help others, usually without fanfare or preamble, sometimes with complete anonymity.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.

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