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Will the Real Leon Blevins Please Stand Up?
By Ruth E. Vise
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!! No, it’s mild mannered Leon Blevins dressed as Superman on his way to a political science class where he might be lecturing on surviving in a global economy.
For more than 40 years, Leon Blevins has taught classes at the Valle Verde campus of El Paso Community College, often dressed as historical and classic characters in order to get and keep the attention of his students and to make the concepts of government and history come alive. And yes, perhaps to satisfy a lifelong love of drama.
Image caption: Leon Blevins and his wife Shannah have appeared as Uncle Sam and Aunt Sammie at community events. (Photo courtesy of Leon Blevin)
Blevins earned a B.A. degree from Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas, where he and his future wife Shannah were both involved in drama. Receiving his M.A. at UTEP in political science, he also did graduate work at Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, becoming an ordained minister. During his college studies, he taught various undergraduate subjects. However, he also taught speech and drama, English, civics and American history at high schools in California and New Mexico, coaching debate and drama in Deming, N.M., his first full-time teaching post.
In the 1970s, Blevins played in Paul Green’s musical drama “Texas,” now in its 50th year, presented in the Pioneer Amphitheater in Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Wherever Blevins taught, he had students act out scenes of political events to stimulate critical thinking. Using drama in classes was just part of being the natural performer Blevins is. Appearing as his various characters later on was a natural transition.
His first costume was a sailor suit his father, who was serving in the Navy during World War II, sent him. Later, a neighbor of the family sent Blevins a child-size U. S. Army uniform that he loved to wear. He enjoyed make-believe and any situation became an opportunity for creative application. When his father was a janitor for the Terry County, Texas, Courthouse, the young Blevins played judge as the elder Blevins cleaned the courtrooms. When he cleaned the sheriff’s office, little Leon played the sheriff. If he didn't have a costume, he pretended he did. Blevins says he never was afraid of being different; he was inquisitive and creative since childhood. He built treehouses and fashioned tools and devices to do what he needed.
Like other children in the 1940s and 1950s, Blevins had an extensive comic book collection, his favorites being those about “superheroes.” He would tie a “cape” around his neck and jump out of trees and over fences, pretending to fly and leap over buildings, defeating the bad men of the world. Likewise, he loved to listen to radio dramas about action heroes at his grandparents’ home, portraying Batman, Dick Tracy, and, of course, Superman, during his career.
In the late 1960s, Blevins and his wife Shannah bought their son Timothy a replica Superman outfit with cape. Then Leon became Superman again in the 1970s when a hearing impaired child living with the Blevins family one day signed that Leon and Superman were the same because of their black hair. The child referred to him as the “bearded Superman.” Shannah bought Leon a tight Superman tee shirt and red “Underoos,” and in 1979, he had his first birthday party with a Superman theme, complete with a cake with a bearded Superman on it.
His Superman tee shirt became his uniform, and then he ordered a Superman costume complete with muscles from a catalog. He wore it to his classes, and a student from Singapore took photos of Blevins and sent them home, “proving” that Superman indeed lived in the United States — and taught his class! Carrying a boom box playing the theme from the 1978 Superman movie, Blevins took this character throughout the community to fitness centers, schools, Ys and day cares.
Image caption: Photo collage of Blevins as Shakespeare in the Shakespeare on the Rocks festival and as Superman. (Photo courtesy of Leon Blevin)
One of the most controversial characters Blevins has portrayed is Don Juan de Oñate, the Spanish explorer and first New Mexico governor who crossed the Rio Grande in this area in 1598. For many years in the late 1990s to the late 2000s, Blevins participated in and sometimes directed the First Thanksgiving Re-enactment in San Elizario, written by Hector Serrano and celebrating what El Pasoans claim to be the “First Thanksgiving” based on historical accounts, more than 20 years before the Plymouth, Mass.observation. Blevins dressed in narrow legged black pants, a white collarless pleated shirt, black velvet vest and black cape, sporting a silver sword with metal scabbard. Sometimes he appeared as “Don Leon,” a fictitious Spanish nobleman who traveled with Oñate.
As locals learned more about Oñate and his cruel subjugation of native peoples, Blevins became a subject of animosity. One student who had a Spanish name and spoke Spanish but identified as Native American vehemently expressed his displeasure when his professor appeared in class as Oñate. Blevins listened and pointed out that in our area the food and culture are more Spanish and Mexican than Native American. He said to his students, “We cannot change the past. We need to understand how the past affects our present and consider how it may affect our future,” reminding them of his support of cultural diversity.
Protestors also picketed his character at an event at Cougar Park in Socorro. The highlight of his appearances as Oñate came in 2005 when descendants of the Sumo and Manso tribes appeared at the Thanksgiving Reenactment and “read a touching statement of reconciliation with the people of the present,” according to Blevins.
In 2007, he appeared as Oñate for the dedication of the massive, controversial statue created by artist John Houser, originally named for the Spanish explorer. After intense protests over installing the sculpture downtown as originally planned, the city renamed it “The Equestrian,” and moved it to the entrance of the El Paso International Airport. Some of the protesters at the dedication were Native Americans from Acoma, N.M., where Oñate and his men killed hundreds and imprisoned and enslaved hundreds more, cutting off the right foot of men over 25, in revenge after an ambush by natives. Blevins, never afraid of controversy, was interviewed by newspapers and television stations from New York and California.
Image caption: Photo collage of Blevins as Chico, the mariachi player and Don Juan de Oñate. (Photo courtesy of Leon Blevin)
Another controversial character was simply called the “American racist,” dressed in everyday street clothes and using racial slurs, a figure Blevins began using in 1970. The character infuriated students at first, leading to heated class discussions and helping to teach the importance and power of language, abuses of power, racial discrimination and civil rights. “You don’t have to wear a hood and burn crosses to be a racist,” professor Blevins reminded his students.
Blevins played Jesus for eight years at Jesus Chapel for pageants directed by his wife. He says it’s his most demanding character. In “How Great Thou Art,” Blevins hung by his wrists on a cross for 17 minutes, his feet supported on a slanted board, balancing his weight. He told student reporter Barbara Gomez in a 1985 article in the EPCC student newspaper El Conquistador that he designed the brackets into which he placed his hands, making it appear that nails pierced his hands as he reenacted the crucifixion of Jesus.
He also played the religious figure for the passion play called “Hosanna! The King Comes” presented by Jesus Chapel at McKelligon Canyon Amphitheater, accompanied by some members of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra. The play, directed by Shannah, moved to the larger venue after it outgrew Jesus Chapel East where hundreds were turned away. Blevins said it was an honor to play Jesus, noting, “We think of our work together as a ministry, a sermon in drama.”
When asked about his controversial characters, Blevins responded, “Well, I am an actor. Sometimes I play good people and sometimes I play bad people. I have played Jesus and I have played Herod and Judas. A good actor should be able to portray all kinds of people.”
Playing Santa for children and adults alike every year is pure pleasure for Blevins, whose appearances span the community. He and wife Shannah will appear as Santa and Mrs. Claus for the last time at the International Museum of Art in December 2015.
Other popular characters that Blevins has portrayed include Rambo, Abraham Lincoln, Davy Crockett, Big Tex (cowboy), Texas Ranger, frontier sheriff, Chopin, William Shakespeare and Chico, the mariachi dancer.
He has changed costumes and characters as many as seven times in one event. In 45 years, Blevins has portrayed about 100 characters in one form or another. Wife Shannah, who taught hearing impaired students in the El Paso Independent School System as well as speech and drama for Jesus Chapel School, helped Leon collect costumes from such places as thrift stores, flea markets, mail order catalogs and places they visited during their travels.
The most popular and unforgettable character that Blevins portrays is Uncle Sam. His first costume consisted of a flag patterned tie and a cardboard Uncle Sam hat in 1971. He brought this first costume to El Paso Community College to help him teach the topic of nationalism when he began his career there in 1972. The costume evolved over the years to the one he sports today with red pants, a bright blue cutaway coat with tails and brass buttons, white shirt, flag tie and cummerbund, white gloves, a red top hat with red and white striped crown and blue hat band with white stars and granny glasses. While his hair was once jet black, today his snow white hair, beard, sideburns and mustache give Uncle Sam the perfect look. Over the past 40 years, he has appeared as Uncle Sam not only in class and on campus but throughout the community to support military and patriotic events and children’s reading programs.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Blevins spoke out against government policies in Vietnam. He explained, “I support the troops. But I don’t support the public policy on the war.” Leon always supported U.S. troops. When he began to teach at EPCC in 1972, the majority of his students had just returned from the Vietnam War. Many of those students also disagreed with government policies that put them at unnecessary risk on the battlefield.
Image caption: Blevins as Uncle Sam is shown at the Vietnam War Memorial replica when it came to El Paso in 2002. (Photo courtesy of Leon Blevin)
Blevins explained to Tere Valenzuela in a 2003 article in the EPCC El Conquistador, “When I dressed up as Uncle Sam at the Vietnam War Memorial replica exhibition in El Paso in November 2002, it was one of the most satisfying events in my life. I got to talk and pray with the war heroes, and that moment was an experience I will never forget.”
He appeared in 1991 as Uncle Sam in a Desert Storm homecoming parade and subsequent VFW parades. He has walked, danced and ridden in the Del Norte Lions Club parade, known as the “People’s Parade,” on the Fourth of July almost every year since the first one in 1979. In 2015, Blevins walked the parade route, alongside his “float,” a decorated walker complete with the Betsy Ross flag with 13 stars.
On January 11, 2002, Uncle Sam Blevins and his wife, dressed in a blue Victorian styled dress and calling herself “Aunt Sammie,” read an original work entitled “America Still Stands” for the El Paso Writers’ League in honor of those lost in the September 11 attack. In 2003, Uncle Sam participated at Cohen Stadium in a tribute to the members of the 507th Maintenance Company, seven of whom became prisoners of war in Iraq, including Spc. Shoshana N. Johnson of El Paso and Spc. Joseph Hudson of Alamogordo. Blevins as Uncle Sam was also present at Fort Bliss when the former POWs arrived home.
Blevins’ Uncle Sam character has also appeared at the Sun Bowl, the Amigo Airsho and Veterans Day parades. He has highlighted many political rallies, including those for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and in 2008 for 12,000 people who attended a rally for Hillary Clinton. Many of his appearances have attracted the attention of national newspapers, which seem to love his portrayal of Uncle Sam.
According to a 1997 El Paso Times article by Debra Dominguez, Blevins uses the character of Uncle Sam not only to entertain his classes and the public but to educate them about the figure, a “living symbol” of the United States, which gained official recognition by Congress only in 1961.
In 1917, a major public image of Uncle Sam appeared, complete with white hair, goatee, top hat with blue band and white stars and striped pants, drawn by James Montgomery Flagg. Most Americans know the image from World War I and II military recruitment posters, but today the figure is known as a patriotic symbol, representing the country itself. Blevins donated his extensive Uncle Sam memorabilia collection to the El Paso International Museum of Art in 2011 for their annual patriotic exhibit entitled “Happy Birthday, America,” during which he was honored.
Leon Blevins is also known for his dancing. Many of his best known characters, including Superman, Oñate, Chico and Uncle Sam dance during their appearances. In class, the dancing helped attract and maintain student attention, and as Superman, both professor and students participated in high impact aerobics for a few minutes, while his dancing Santa, Superman, Chico and others entertained his fans, whether in a parade or other event. But it was not always so. Blevins became a dancer only in his late 40s, one of his few regrets.
Taught that dancing was “sinful,” Blevins was introduced to the physical and mental benefits of dancing through the aerobics classes that he first took with Professor Maureen Henry (he was the only man in a women’s aerobics class) and continued to take for 20 years. He developed routines that he used in his appearances, always knowing when to begin the dancing to keep his audience’s interest. Blevins enjoyed watching live or TV dance performances and learned much from movies, professional videos and ballroom dance classes.
Image caption: Leon and Shannah Blevins pose as the Texas Gambler and Shady Lady. mage caption: (Photo courtesy of Leon Blevins
He danced at El Paso’s summer programs Music under the Stars and Alfresco! Fridays, sometimes leading conga lines, with children imitating his every move. A former student taught him the “Mariachi Loco,” which he often danced at Cinco de Mayo or 16 de Septiembre celebrations. The pure joy he finds in dance is obvious to anyone watching him. “I’m not good, but I’m fun,” he is fond of saying.
He didn’t dance with his mother Virgie Dobkins until she was a senior citizen during the town’s Early Settlers Days in his native Levelland (Texas), but he had watched her and his stepfather square dance and win awards for their performances as he grew up. He also danced with his granddaughter Dasha Rose, whose own dance group performed many places, including Disneyland. He even danced with her at her high school homecoming dance, everything from polka to swing to rock ‘n roll. He got her to dance with him and Shannah when they were Santa and Mrs. Claus at EPCC Senior Adult Christmas Shows at the Chamizal. In 2014, he was able to dance with her at her wedding. Leon and Shannah also enlisted Dasha’s younger sister, Teah Rose, to perform with them as an elf when they did Christmas programs.
And Leon danced with dozens of women over the years at his many performances, some very beautiful women. What does his wife say about this? Shannah, a beautiful woman herself, says, “Oh, he’s harmless” or “I trust him.” Blevins attributes his popularity with women to the “teddy bear effect.” He says, “Everybody loves a teddy bear, but the one that lives with the teddy bear is usually the one who loves him the most.”
Because of his unique teaching style, Blevins is recognized by former students all over Texas and other places. Besides commenting on his numerous characters, many remember the “funny money” they earned (and lost) for answering quiz questions at the end of each chapter, the points they won added to exam scores. Blevins took the idea from TV game shows in the 1980s and 1990s. Other students recall the “security blankets” (one-inch squares of felt) he gave them to rub to relieve stress while taking exams. Students wore them on coats and sweaters or put them around pens, some asking him to autograph them and others keeping them for years. When anyone asked Blevins if he had a doctorate, he would simply say, “My doctorate is a D.C., a Doctorate in Creativity.”
Having modeled as his various characters for Tony Guerrero’s EPCC photography classes for about 10 years, Blevins composed and printed calendars showing him as a presidential candidate in the early 1990s with his friends, relatives and students, all produced by hand. He also created posters and videos of many of his costumed characters.
Blevins said he developed his sense of humor through his belief in God, dealing with his father’s alcoholism and his parents’ divorce, subjects not discussed in public when he was growing up. He had to learn to be resourceful and streetwise. He failed a couple of grades in elementary school and was put on academic probation at Texas Tech. Seeing Christ as a master teacher, Blevins wanted to produce “a heightened awareness” in his students. That Blevins has reached his students is reflected in the fact that he has been honored with outstanding teaching awards seven times by either students or faculty committees and has received two NISOD Teaching Excellence awards. In 2003, the Texas House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring Blevins for his unique teaching style.
In 1973, Blevins published the Topical Dictionary of American Government and Politics, designed so that students could understand the language of political science, and in 1987, his textbook Texas Government in National Perspective appeared. Over the years, he also published numerous study guides. Published in Church and State in June 2015, his most recent article was on politics and religion.
Today, Blevins has had to make several adjustments. Still teaching, he has retired from appearing as his favorite characters because of a knee replacement and changes in class technology and in students themselves. Blevins sees students who have grown up with standardized tests and the influence of electronic media, students who are passive and not used to critical thinking. He refuses to simply show videos, films and Power Points and has developed a system of textbook chapter reviews and small groups, teaching students organization and reading skills.
He has had to cut way back on his dancing and often rides in convertibles in parades as Uncle Sam, waving to cheering fans. He still has the energy of a much younger man, attributing his enthusiasm to his mother and to “clean living.” Never smoking or drinking alcohol, Blevins believes in daily exercise and has unconditional acceptance from his wife Shannah and his family, children Timothy, Keith and Shaleah and his grandchildren.
For the past eight years, Blevins has hosted a weekly television show on Sundays at 11:30 a.m. called “Perspectives: El Paso” on EPCC-TV and KCOS, during which he interviews professors, historians and leaders in politics, government and the military. His reduced appearances have allowed him to write his autobiography, Crystal Moments of Leon Blevins, still in progress, on which much of this article is based.
In July 2015, Blevins was invited to participate in an educational symposium sponsored by the Republic of Korea (South Korea) in Washington, D.C., for teachers who want to incorporate the subject of the Korean War into their curriculum. Blevins prepared a paper on the Korean War and showed participants how to conduct oral history.
Blevins plans to retire from teaching at EPCC at the end of the spring semester 2016. The International Museum of Art plans to host a reception on May 22, 2016, for an exhibit of photographs and caricatures entitled “Leon Blevins: A Man of a Thousand Faces; Half a Century on the U.S./Mexico Border.” The exhibit will be from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Call the museum at 915-543-6747 for other days and hours the exhibit will be on display.
Blevins admits he’s still a kid at heart. When accused of being childish during some of his appearances, he corrected his detractors by saying he is “childlike,” always “in wonder of the world and the adventures that it provides, just like an inquisitive and adventurous child.”
Professor, performer, preacher. Actor, dancer, writer. He is all these and more. This warm, charismatic man with the strong voice and piercing blue eyes has taught thousands of El Pasoans about politics and cultural history. It is no wonder that fans have called him “The Spirit of El Paso” for his energy, spontaneity, enthusiasm — in short, the essence of the Sun City. ¡Viva Leon!
All photos courtesy of Leon Blevins.
Leon Blevins sources
Perspectives TV show episodes (Youtube) hosted by EPCC Professor Leon Blevins. See playlists: Blevins List and Perspectives for episodes.