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Leonard Asbridge, pioneer of outreach to deaf, dies at 96

JACKSON, Miss. (BP)–Leonard Asbridge, one of five founders of the Southern Baptist Convention for the Deaf, died of heart failure in Jackson, Miss., March 5. He was 96.

Born in west Tennessee, near Dyersburg, Asbridge was left deaf at the age of 7 after a bout with spiral meningitis. He went on to attend the Tennessee School for the Deaf in Knoxville, where he was a star athlete in track and field, baseball and football. He returned to Dyer County upon graduation and began a 52-year career as a printer.

Asbridge worked for 33 years setting up type for The Commercial Appeal newspaper and the now-defunct Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper in Memphis, Tenn.

While in the printing business, Asbridge spent nearly 20 years as a Baptist minister to the deaf and a “circuit rider,” preaching and establishing new deaf congregations throughout Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. He was especially involved in deaf congregations in Memphis and Jackson, Miss.

“I established more churches for the deaf, and the churches really helped in many ways because so many deaf people had nothing to do; they’d get off the track and get into trouble and have so many problems,” Asbridge had said in a discussion about his life in 1985.

“In my work as a traveling preacher, I wore out three cars. I would use my car often,” he said. “Sometimes, if it was far, I’d fly; sometimes I’d take the bus or train. … Often I would sleep at the homes of deaf people and sometimes I stayed at hotels. Sometimes someone would fail to meet me at the train station or airport, so I would sleep on a hard bench.”

Asbridge and his wife, Doris, who was also hearing impaired, were two of the original five founders of the Southern Baptist Convention for the Deaf in 1948. The idea grew from a need to have something similar to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting but geared toward deaf people.

“We sent letters out to the different churches and asked them to send a representative to help organize a conference for the deaf,” Asbridge recounted. “In December 1948, we had assembled 21 people from seven states to discuss the proposal.”

The South Wide Convention of the Deaf was established as a result of the meeting, and later the name was changed to the Southern Baptist Convention for the Deaf. The annual meeting now draws about 1,000 people nationwide.

Asbridge was also instrumental in the foundation of a similar convention in Tennessee. In 1955, he helped establish the Tennessee Baptist Conference of the Deaf.

“I worked as a minister to the deaf because I felt that deaf people needed God more than anything else,” Asbridge said in 1985. “Many people seemed so far from that, but I’d ask them to listen and sometimes they’d get the idea of what the truth was in life.”

Asbridge was also known for his role as the “Silent Santa,” hired by the Coca-Cola Bottling plant to play Santa at the company’s annual Christmas party for deaf children. He could speak in their language when other Santas could not, and his role as the Silent Santa grew throughout the community.

In 1988, Asbridge was named “Senior Citizen of the Year” by the Memphis-Shelby County Commission on Aging and in 1992 was named to the Alumni Hall of Fame at the Tennessee School for the Deaf.

Asbridge was preceded in death by his wife and is survived by two daughters, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Funeral services were held March 10 at Memorial Park Cemetery in Memphis.

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  • Erin Curry