Leon Ellsworth "Leaky" Croft, a plumber who took a light-hearted approach to his work coaxing uncooperative plumbing, cranky furnaces and clogged drains back to life, died Sunday of complications from a stroke at his Elkridge home of more than half a century. He was 79.
Born in Baltimore and raised on Lauretta Avenue, Mr. Croft "quit school and lied about his age so he could join the Navy in 1942," said a son, John W. Croft of Upper Marlboro, a former aerospace engineer and freelance aviation writer.
Mr. Croft spent World War II as a carpenter's mate aboard the supply ship USS Butner in the Pacific. Discharged in 1946, he returned to Baltimore and learned the plumbing business at a trade school on the GI Bill.
For more than 20 years, Mr. Croft worked for plumbers in the Elkridge area before establishing L.E. Croft Plumbing in 1974 in a garage behind his Old Washington Road home. It is now operated by a son.
"He hated his middle name but liked Leaky, which was given to him by his friends. Everyone knew Leaky or Leaky Leon, as he was sometimes called," his son said.
With a small build but strong forearms, Mr. Croft always wore a blue work shirt, gray slacks and midnight-blue knit Navy watch cap.
"He always said there was a stigma about being a plumber because of TV, which portrayed them as having a low intellect. However, he was everyone's friend and considered himself a doctor of the pipes," the son said.
Mr. Croft primarily worked in Howard County, where many people noticed the blue and green Ford and Chevy vans he drove over the years -- always with the jingle-jangle of lengths of pipe, fittings and tools.
He worked six days a week, his family said, and on Saturday evenings celebrated the end of the workweek by falling into a comfortable chair and watching reruns of his two favorite programs: Hee-Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show.
He brightened the mood of customers with a running succession of puns and jokes from a vast repertoire, and occasionally showed up on jobs wearing a Groucho Marx mask.
"He was a master plumber who forgot more than most plumbers ever knew," said Bill Schaefer, owner of Nationwide Auto World and a residential customer since 1963. "He'd always come, no matter when I called. It could be Christmas Day or 4 a.m., and I'd call and he'd say, 'OK, Bill, you know I'll be there.' And he was."
"He told me he'd only fix my plumbing if I gave him a sandwich," said another customer, Bernadette DeMinnis.
"He was one of the most wonderful individuals I've ever met," said Tony Keydash, a plumber and former employee. "When he went bankrupt one time, he paid everyone back the full amount he owed -- not 10 percent on the dollar, but the full amount. This was one of the things in his life he was noted for. He also was known for his charitable work. He did a lot of it and never charged people who couldn't afford to pay," Mr. Keydash said.
Mr. Croft met his wife, the former Helen Ciepiela, at a Baltimore bowling alley, and they married in 1949. They settled in 1951 in an area of Elkridge that was known as "Little Poland," into a home that he built.
The Rev. Gerard J. Bowen, pastor of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Elkridge, where Mr. Croft was a longtime parishioner, said he kept the church's pipes and heating equipment in good order.
"He was a convert to Catholicism. ... His wife was from a Polish background, and he could do something for her by becoming a Catholic," Father Bowen said.
"And I can say that Leon lived his faith, and whenever he fixed anything around here, there never was a bill," he added.
A stroke five years ago left Mr. Croft unable to speak. "But he could still smile and laugh," Father Bowen said.
A Mass of Christian burial will be offered at St. Augustine at 10 a.m. today.
Survivors, in addition to his wife and son, include two other sons, Gerard M. Croft of Elkridge and Edward R. Croft of Ellicott City; two daughters, Diane M. Hodges of Linthicum and Jean M. Flack of Elkridge; and nine grandchildren.