Teacher who inspired Lynyrd Skynyrd band name dies

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Leonard Skinner, a high-school gym teacher who became a rock ‘n’ roll footnote by inspiring a group of pupils to name their band Lynyrd Skynyrd, died on Monday in Jacksonville, Fla., after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, the Florida Times-Union reported. He was 77.

Skinner earned the disdain of long-haired students at Robert E. Lee High School during the 1960s by sending them to the principal’s office, where they were handed suspension notices.

One of them -- he later believed it was guitarist Gary Rossington -- returned with his father who protested that his son needed to have long hair so that he could support the family with his earnings from a band that he played with.

The principal was unmoved, suggesting that youngster get a crew cut and a wig. The band later adopted the name Lynyrd Skynyrd, and went on to achieve worldwide fame with such southern rock anthems as “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Freebird.”

“I just went along with the flow,” Skinner said of the backhanded tribute during a 1996 interview with Reuters. “There was not a much I could do about it.”

Skinner, who had no memory of the boys at school, reconnected with them as famous alumni during the 1970s when they hung out at a lounge he operated giving up teaching.

He also got a second helping of fame after he started selling property. A lawn sign featuring his name and telephone number appeared among the illustrations on their third album, 1975’s “Nuthin’ Fancy.” He was soon inundated with thousands of telephone calls from around the world at all hours of the day and night from fans wanting to talk about the band.

As the band played up its image as redneck outsiders, Skinner was depicted as its brutish nemesis. Rossington once told Reuters that Skinner “kicked me out of school so many times for having long hair, which it wasn’t long back then.”

But Skinner said he did not have the power to suspend students. “I don’t like to consider myself an evil guy and I don’t think I was,” he said.

In later years he became particularly friendly with bassist Leon Wilkeson, who died in 2001, and with Gene Odom, the bodyguard for singer Ronnie Van Zant, who was among those killed when the band’s plane crashed in 1977.

Reporting by Dean Goodman