During his decades as an educator, Leslie H. Kimbrough was a role model who earned the trust and respect of many. He expected the best from students at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, and he encouraged them to make good decisions.
“If he saw someone who was down, he would pull them aside and see if he could help in any way,” said Jennifer Goodwin Lyles, a former student at the school. “He was a great advocate for the students, for their emotional, social, and academic lives.”
Mr. Kimbrough, who had lived in Cambridge for nearly 40 years, died April 29 after suffering a heart attack in a friend’s house in Cambridge. He was 64.
“If he thought you were headed the wrong way, or going to get in trouble, he would have a word with you. No yelling, but to sit down and talk to you,” said Gayle Johnson, a former student who said she learned about the importance of community involvement and social justice from Mr. Kimbrough.
At the beginning of the 1970s, the Cambridge public schools recruited Mr. Kimbrough as the district was diversifying its teaching staff.
“He found a community in Cambridge, but he also created that community,” said Ray Shurtleff, a former colleague.
To many he was simply “Kimbrough.” Former students and colleagues remembered him as a tough, dedicated teacher who held himself, students, and colleagues to a high standard.
“Even the most roguish student would not disrespect him. He wouldn’t allow for it, and he didn’t allow for students to disrespect other students,” said Goodwin Lyles, who added that Mr. Kimbrough addressed students with honorifics such as “Mr.” and their last names.
Colleagues said Mr. Kimbrough’s warm and sunny personality, generous spirit, sense of humor, and patience also helped him bond with students.
His work day did not end at the sound of the afternoon bell. He was the teacher in charge of student government, and oversaw the yearbook, ski club, and senior class trips.
“I don’t know if there is anyone in the last four decades in Cambridge who has had the kind of effect that he had on students,” Shurtleff said. “He knew so many kids because of the various roles he had, and because of the way he respected students.”
Mr. Kimbrough was born and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he graduated in 1966 from Anderson High School. In 1970, he graduated from Winston-Salem State University with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Between 1971 and 1973, he temporarily left teaching for military service, and then returned to Cambridge Rindge & Latin.
“He became an integral part of the staff … really like none other,” said Poppy Milner, a former colleague who added that he brought history alive for students.
In 1971, Mr. Kimbrough married his college sweetheart, Shirley Johnson of Virginia.
Mr. Kimbrough, who also had served as dean of students, retired in 2004, though he continued to be the announcer for men’s and women’s sports contests.
After retiring, he was an adjunct faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Boston, advising and supervising students who majored in education and teaching.
“He always believed in giving back to other people, and just being a person who young people could trust, could lean on, could go to for advice,” said his son Derrick of Cambridge.
In 1993, Mr. Kimbrough was awarded a Conant Fellowship, which supported his studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he received a master’s degree.
His family said Mr. Kimbrough’s other honors included an education award in April 2002 from the Massachusetts Black Legislative Caucus for his contributions to the children of Cambridge Public Schools.
Mr. Kimbrough helped found an organization of black educators in the Cambridge Public Schools, was involved in a group that researched and developed curriculum to reflect student diversity at Rindge & Latin, and had served on the board of The Algebra Project in Cambridge.
“He always did the right thing because it was the right thing to do,” said his son, who added that despite his accomplishments, his father “wasn’t a person who went around and talked about his success.”
Mr. Kimbrough also was a mentor for children who participated in Youth Enrichment Services, the MIT/Wellesley Upward Bound Program, and the Henry Buckner School in Cambridge.
Family and friends said that throughout his life, Mr. Kimbrough helped people in unheralded ways, such as lending his car or shoveling driveways for the elderly.
“If you were befriended by Kimbrough, or you befriended him, then you were in a friendship that lasted forever,” said Albert Newton, a childhood friend who moved to Boston with him in 1970. “He was this wonderfully supportive guy who seemed least likely to judge anyone. He would just sort of be there.”
A service has been held for Mr. Kimbrough, who in addition to his wife and son leaves another son, Laurance of Cambridge; his mother, Doris (Brown) of Winston-Salem, N.C.; and six brothers, Lawrence Brown of New York City, and Bobby, Landis, Alford, Michael, and Kayyum Muhammad Allah, all of Winston-Salem; and two sisters, Doris Evans and Denise Gillis, both of Winston-Salem.
Away from work, Mr. Kimbrough was a photographer. He liked to golf, host cookouts, travel internationally, and collect African and African-American art.
“His last day was a great day … but all of his days were great days because he gave of himself,” Milner said. “He enjoyed life to the fullest. He was eternally optimistic.”