He came a long way from the cold floors of the home off McConnells Highway, but Leon Comer never forgot them. It’s part of why he never stopped trying to make Rock Hill a warmer place, not just for himself, but for so many around him, too.
Comer, 91, died March 5. The Rock Hill entrepreneur left behind a winding list of civic service and charitable causes dear to him.
“We’re going to miss that guy,” said his son Chip Comer. “He’s been a wonderful dad and just a tribute to what a southern gentleman should be.”
Leon Comer founded Comer Distributing Co. in 1971. He’d already been general manager of a beer distributor in the market for more than a dozen years. Comer started a three-route, 250,000-case operation on Pendleton Street with five employees. The company outgrew 5,000 square feet, moving into a more than 17,000-square-foot site on Carmel Road.
“He had that entrepreneurial spirit,” said Rob Youngblood, York County Regional Chamber of Commerce president.
The company remained in the family and continued to grow in the decades since it opened. In 2012 the company expanded into the Columbia market. The next year it added another 11,200 square feet of space. Last year, Comer Distributing opened a two-story office with a warehouse expansion.
Chip Comer oversees the company now with almost 70 employees providing 1.5 million cases of a variety of brand name beverages each year.
“He is the epitome of what I would always want to be,” Chip Comer said. “He taught me so many life lessons growing up, and even up until now.”
After Leon’s 1990 retirement, he regularly checked up on the business his son continues to grow.
“He always came in and wanted to be a part of it every day,” Chip said. “That was his baby that he started.”
As talented as Leon was running a business, it’s arguable he impacted his community more through his charity.
“This is a big loss for the community,” Youngblood said. “Leon was something else. He was an astute businessperson, a fantastic family man. As a person, he was unassuming, passionate, very giving.”
Comer was a Mason and a Shriner. His participation and membership included posts and lodges (American Legion, Elks, Moose), universities (Gamecock Club, Winthrop Eagle Club) and outdoors groups. He contributed to boys and girls clubs and men’s shelters. Comer routinely gave to or volunteered for large community events, or both.
“It’s hard to say no,” Chip said. “He’s one of those kind, and I’m kind of the same way.”
Chip said his father grew up off McConnells Highway without much. He did have seven siblings. Leon always recalled the cold floors of his youth, and the trips outside to use the bathroom. By the time he grew into a successful businessman, Leon made sure he had carpet on every floor — bathroom included.
“He never forgot where he came from,” Chip said. “He always had carpet.”
Never forgetting where he came from played a major role in Leon’s giving.
“He didn’t want to be that way,” Chip said of his father’s humble upbringing. “He tried his best to remember that all his life, and he did. He provided so much.”
Leon had a playful side, too.
“He was always scheming some way to play a joke or prank on people he loved and cared about,” Chip said.
Practical jokes were elaborate, sometimes involving contraptions Leon cooked up just for the occasion.
“He put a lot of work into it,” Chip said.
Maybe he was pulling Youngblood’s leg all those years ago, or maybe he actually needed the help, when he called with an odd request. It was the era when the internet was around but phone navigation voices weren’t.
“He wasn’t that interested in advanced technology,” Youngblood said. “One time he called me and said he was going on a trip and he asked if we had any maps.”
Youngblood thought Leon meant Rock Hill. Leon wanted a map of Chapel Hill, N.C. Youngblood went onto mapquest.com and printed one for his friend. It wasn’t too much for someone he’d spent plenty of time with when Comer had the downtown office near the Bleachery powerhouse. Leon was thankful.
“He was such a kind, fair person,” Youngblood said.
A U.S. Merchant Marine, Comer served on several area and state organization boards including the York County Natural Gas Authority, Rock Hill Economic Development and York County Economic Development, which he chaired for three years. Comer twice chaired the South Carolina Beer Wholesalers Association and served on the National Beer Wholesalers Association board.
A service for Comer will be held at 11 a.m. March 9 at St. John’s United Methodist Church in Rock Hill. Visitation will begin at 9:30 a.m.