Oakland Mills barber remembered for his kindness, community work

As Nancy Rosema sifted through her Uncle Ferdinand "Fred" Leunissen's Oakland Mills home on a recent afternoon, she was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless number of "Thank You" cards stuffed into desk drawers and closets.

"He was so loving and so giving to everyone," Rosema said of Leunissen, a 40-year resident of Columbia who died at the age of 87 on March 14 of congestive heart failure.

"It was amazing how many cards we found. 'Thank you for the winter coat,' 'Thank you for my new shoes,' 'Thank you for the money,' " Leunissen's niece recanted.

Leunissen, who moved to Columbia to work as a barber in 1972, owned and operated the Village Barber Stylists, in the Oakland Mills Village Center from the mid-1970's until his retirement in 2006 at the age of 81.

"Fred's one of the original Columbia folks," said Bobbi Young-Mace, Leunissen's longtime friend and financial advisor. "Everywhere you go people know him and love him. He's a landmark."

Young-Mace said Leunissen, who never married, had cut generations of hair and was like a family member to many Columbia residents.

"He was invited to weddings, graduations and even attended clients funerals," Young-Mace said. "Columbia has lost an original. They don't get any better than Fred Leunissen."

County Council member Calvin Ball, a resident of Oakland Mills, first met Leunissen in 2005 while working on the revitalization of the Oakland Mills Village Center.

"Everyone knows 'Fred the Barber,' " Ball said. "Fred was a strong early supporter of revitalizing the village center. He did everything he could to work with the community. He was also just a really nice guy."

And while he was known to many in Columbia as "Fred the Barber," there was much more to Leunissen than his humble, unassuming demeanor would let on, according to Rosema and friends.

Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, on June 2, 1925, Leunissen had his world turned upside down as a result of World War II, spending most of his late teenage years in a Japanese Concentration Camp.

Upon his release in 1945, he discovered his father was one of the nearly 6,000 prisoners of war and slave laborers killed one year earlier in the sinking of the Junyo Maru, a Japanese steamship.

Reunited with his brother, who was also in a concentration camp, Leunissen repatriated to the Netherlands and served in the Royal Dutch Army. He stayed in the Netherlands, studying art, until a fateful encounter with Dutch-born French painter Frans Boers changed his life.

Young Leunissen made such an impression on Boers that he offered him a live-in apprenticeship at Boers home studio in Paris.

"They more less adopted him," said Rosema, who described her uncle as a father-figure. "It speaks to his personality. It's like the minute you met him you were family."

Leunissen spent 11 years living with the painter and his wife, Claire, before moving to New York City in 1962 to continue painting and sculpting.

Ten years later, Leunissen heard about a new city being built in between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It peaked his interest.

"He wanted to be a part of Columbia. He wanted to be one of the first residents of a new city," Rosema said.

"I remember when he built this house. It was an open field, and I said 'Why would you want to live here? There isn't anything around,' and he said 'There will be, its going to be huge.' He wanted to be at the start of something big."

So, Leunissen, at the behest of a mutual friend and original Village Barber Stylist owner E.J. Compton, traded in his brush for a pair of scissors and moved to the new city.

"He told me being a barber is like being an artist. You are sculpting someone's head," Rosema said.

And while he had a different day-job, Leunissen never gave up his true passion.

Rosema selected some of the hundreds of framed and unframed paintings scattered around his home and arranged them inside an upstairs room Leunissen converted into an in-home barber shop.

"It's an exhibit of his work, a shrine" said Rosema, who plans on displaying some of his work at the funeral service on Saturday, April 6.

Rosema said, following his retirement, Leunissen would use the room to cut his regulars' hair, even though a knee replacement surgery made it difficult to get around.

And while getting around was once a regular part of this native Indonesian, adopted Parisian, Dutch Naval veteran and New York artist's life, Rosema says he wasn't planning on going anywhere any time soon.

"He loved being in Columbia, he would go back and forth to New York City, and he had family in the Netherlands. But he was very proud to live here," Rosema said.

"His heart was here."

A funeral service is planned for 11 a.m. Saturday, April 6, at Harvester Baptist Church, 9605 Old Annapolis Road, in Ellicott City.

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