Dr. Leon L. Haley Jr. was remembered Saturday as a compassionate healer, a loving father, a man of faith, and a physician at the forefront of Jacksonville’s battle against COVID-19 who put the welfare of patients and the community first.
Amid their grief, his three children — Grant, Wesley and Nichelle — as well as Haley’s longtime friends and colleagues shared their memories of the late UF Health Jacksonville CEO during his funeral Saturday morning. The funeral was live-streamed from Wesley A.M.E. Zion in Pittsburgh where Haley was baptized in 1965.
“My father was and always will be the greatest man I’ll ever know,” Grant Haley said as his brother Wesley and their sister Nichelle stood on either side of him at the pulpit as he spoke to the church.
Of all the titles their father earned, he said “the only one that mattered to us was ‘dad.'”
Saints safety Grant Haley remembers father as a ‘hero’
“He was a servant, a hero who dedicated his life to others especially his family,” said Grant Haley, noting that from an early age he and his siblings learned the lessons of service from their father.
Grant Haley recalled shadowing his father down hospital hallways and donating their gifts to children in need at annual events.
“These lessons we may not have understood at the time but over the years they’ve become quite clear. Looking back, these were all ways my father raised us children to change the world,” he said.
“Daddy, you changed the world,” he said as tears flowed down his and his siblings’ cheeks.
“Dad we love you. As you taught us, the sky is the limit. Your legacy is passed on to us. You gave us the tools and we’ll take it from here,” Grant Haley said.
UF Health:Staff mourn death of CEO Leon Haley
Wesley Haley sang “Amazing Grace” a capella. He said his father loved music and the hymn was among his favorites. Nichelle Haley read her father’s favorite poem, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
An NFL cornerback with the New Orleans Saints, Grant Haley also thanked everyone for their condolences and support for their family.
Next week, UF Health will hold a public memorial service in Jacksonville but details hadn’t been finalized as of Friday, a hospital spokesman told the Times-Union.
Haley’s life was celebrated during the nearly two-hour funeral that included the readings of condolences from U.S. Rep. John Rutherford, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, and community and business leaders.
How did Leon Haley die?
Haley, 56, died July 24 after being ejected from a personal watercraft in Palm Beach Inlet, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is investigating the accident.
Witnesses told investigators they saw a man — later identified as Haley — on an “out of control” Jet Ski go straight into the jetty rocks. Haley sustained severe head injuries. Two witnesses jumped in the water and were able to keep Haley`s head above water until the Coast Guard arrived. Haley was pronounced dead at a local hospital, according to an incident report.
UF Health held a brief memorial for staff July 26. Meanwhile, a memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Aug. 7 at The Lovett School, 4075 Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta, where Haley’s children are students.
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Saturday, Haley’s friends and colleagues described him as a humanitarian whose legacy of compassion lives on.
Longtime friend Michael Forbes, a physician and chairman of the Pediatrics Department at Akron Children’s Hospital, said Haley leaves behind a “global legacy.”
“Leon lived to make a difference at the individual level …Leon cared about people,” said Forbes, noting because Haley “focused on each individual heart, each individual handshake and each individual smile, he has left a global legacy.”
“He was a gifted, brilliant, inspirational leader,” Forbes said. “He was propelled by the love and the admiration of his family and … he leaves an exceptional legacy, one of love, service, sacrifice and humanism.”
Leon Haley was UF Health Jacksonville’s first Black CEO
Haley had joined UF Health Jacksonville as dean of the University of Florida College of Medicine-Jacksonville in January 2017. He was named the hospital’s first Black chief executive officer the following year.
Before coming to Jacksonville, Haley served as executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine and deputy senior vice president of medical affairs at Grady Memorial Hospital — both in Atlanta.
Kent Fuchs, UF president, described Haley as a great man, but said most of all, Haley was a “bridge-builder.” He connected individuals and communities and institutions, science and medicine, Fuchs said.
“He built bridges to bring health care to our most vulnerable,” Fuchs said. “He made a difference but always through bridge-building.”
Fuchs also said Haley was respected and beloved by hospital staff who are mourning him as are hospital executives nationwide, civic leaders and people in the community.
“He was a servant leader and a true friend of the city,” Fuchs said. Haley was devoted to providing care to the poor and under-served, he said.
Haley was a key leader in the fight against COVID in Jacksonville
As the COVID-19 pandemic raged in the city, Haley was at the forefront of efforts to get people vaccinated against the virus.
Under Haley’s leadership, UF Health Jacksonville became the first health system in Florida to administer the COVID vaccine, and he himself became the first person in the entire state of Florida to receive the vaccine.
“If there were an Olympics for fighting COVID in Florida, Dr. Haley would win the gold,” Fuchs said.
The day before he died, Haley personally administered vaccine to health care workers in the hospital. He had vaccinated 15 staff members, Fuchs said.
During a Friday rally at the hospital honoring Haley, 152 employees choose to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Fuchs said.
Fuchs said Haley’s friends, colleagues and the hospital system are still in mourning. They cannot replace him, Fuchs said, but they can carry on his work and devotion to helping others and the community.
In addition to his children, Haley is survived by his parents, Leon and Elizabeth Ann Haley, his children’s mother, Carla Neal Haley; his sister, Lisa Haley-Huff, and other family members, according to his obituary at White Memorial Chapel of Point Breeze in Pittsburgh.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Dr. Leon L. Haley, Jr. Scholarship Fund, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, 128 N. Craig St., Pittsburgh, PA 15213.