Don Leebern influenced higher education in Georgia

Donald M. Leebern, Jr. was a successful businessman and long-time member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.   BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM



Donald M. Leebern, Jr. was a successful businessman and long-time member of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Don Leebern “had a huge heart, and he loved to have fun,” said Athens resident Becky Alhadeff.

The successful Columbus businessman also impacted Georgia’s higher education system as a long-time Regent of the University System of Georgia. He endowed three scholarships at UGA, his alma mater, for football and gymnastics. He also helped found a scholarship organization that raises and gives hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships annually.

Alhadeff and her husband Irvin were friends for more than 20 years with Leebern and his wife, former UGA gymnastics coach Suzanne Yoculan Leebern.

“Don was full of pranks and jokes,” said Irvin Alhadeff. “Most of those jokes are not repeatable and not printable in a newspaper.”

Born in Columbus, Donald M. Leebern, Jr., died on April 27 in Oconee County from cancer and other health issues. He was 85.

“He had a memory for everything,” said Becky Alhadeff. Her father graduated from Columbus High School with Leebern. Leebern remembered all their classmates, football teammates and families, as well as the details of every football game. “He forgot nothing.”

He could also be feisty. The Alhadeffs both remember an altercation Leebern, then 68, had with a 49-year-old neighbor in 2006 while Suzanne and he were walking their dogs. The neighbor’s dogs started barking at the Leeberns’ dogs. When that started, the neighbor approached the couple, spewing obscenities.

Fisticuffs ensued. The man hit Leebern in the mouth. Leebern knocked the neighbor to the ground. The neighbor got up and continued the fight. Leebern hit him a few more times, eventually sending him to the hospital with a broken nose and a collapsed lung.

Leebern later said he regretted the incident, but also said, “I strongly believe in my right to self-defense.” Neither man filed charges.

“He should have known not to say something ugly in front of Suzanne,” said Becky Alhadeff. “Don wasn’t going to allow it.”

After finishing high school, Leebern attended UGA. At six-foot three-inches tall, he was a lineman and a right tackle on the Bulldogs football team, which won the SEC championship in 1959 and the Orange Bowl in 1960. He then returned to Columbus and joined Georgia Crown Distributing Co., the family business, which imports and sells liquor, wine and beer in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. After working as a salesman, he became president in 1968 and chairman of the board in 1992.

“Don is certainly a legend in our industry,” said Doug Hertz, chairman and CEO of United Distributors, a competitor of Georgia Crown. “With his larger-than-life personality, his ability to take care of his friends, he was a very successful businessman who cut a very wide swath in Georgia. A very successful businessman.”

Leebern took an interest in politics and donated money to politicians of every stripe. His influence helped him secure a bill in the Georgia General Assembly to brand Dahlonega Pure Water, one of his business ventures, as spring water even though no spring was involved. Governor Zell Miller appointed Leebern to the Board of Regents in 1991.

He was the chair of the search committee that in 1997 brought to Athens Michael Adams as UGA’s president. Along with then-UGA Foundation President Dan Amos, Leebern donated money to Adams’ compensation package to help cover the tuition costs at Emory for Adams’ son. Leebern’s support of Adams never wavered, even when Adams shortened and then declined to renew former football coach Vince Dooley’s contract as UGA’s athletic director.

Leebern remained on the Board of Regents from 1991 until 2019. He was the chairman in 1994-1995 and was a founding member of the University System of Georgia Foundation. It gives hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships yearly. Sonny Perdue, Chancellor of the University System of Georgia, said, “Don Leebern, Jr., served as a long-term regent and was a great benefactor to the University System of Georgia. We greatly appreciate his service and commitment. USG is better because of Don Leebern.”

In addition to his wife, Leebern is survived by son Donald M. Leebern III, daughter, Gantt Leebern Shadburn, and their spouses; stepson Adam Yoculan, stepdaughter Ali Yoculan Ericksen, three grandsons, two granddaughters and five step-grandchildren.

There will be a graveside service on May 2 at 1 p.m. at Evergreen Memorial Park, 3655 Atlanta Highway, in Athens. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, people consider donating to UCBC Cares Foundation, 3320 Old Jefferson Road, Building 800, Athens, GA 30607.