For their first date, Stephen Carl Leichner took Jane Patten to the symphony in Haddonfield on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
"It wasn't a bad omen for us," Jane Leichner of Haddon Township recalled Wednesday, more than 50 years since that first date.
Mr. Leichner died Nov. 29, having battled cancer since it was discovered in 1996. He was 73.
On that first date, Mrs. Leichner said, the two "knew almost instantly" they were meant for each other. "It really does happen for some people," she said. He would cherish time with his son, Eric Leichner, of Bordentown, his daughter, Sarah Kilkelly of Haddonfield, and his four grandchildren.
In New Jersey, Mr. Leichner was widely respected as a master carpenter and an active member of his church and community. In Philadelphia, he was known for creative classroom antics as a public schoolteacher for 34 years.
Relatives and friends described him as an energetic leader who brought immense enthusiasm to whatever he did, whether that was sculpting a wooden bowl, building an addition and a deck on his house, or herding his students onto a SEPTA bus for a field trip.
Although Mr. Leichner - a wrestler at Drexel University - graduated with a bachelor's degree in business, he felt a calling to help children. He obtained a master's in education at Temple University.
In the classroom, Mr. Leichner encouraged his pupils to broaden their horizons, trying new foods at the Italian market, or attending cultural activities, his wife said. At times, he wore a wig and impersonated Oprah Winfrey trying to spark an interest in current events for his students.
"He loved having a relationship with the children and getting them excited about the subjects he was teaching," Mrs. Leichner said, recalling walking field trips to the Philadelphia Art Museum and coordinating school trips to Washington and New York City.
Mr. Leichner also was known for being a perfectionist. With an interest in carpentry, Mr. Leichner became a master of the craft, first working with flat wood, then as a turn specialist.
Early in their marriage, the Leichners purchased a Haddonfield house in need of great repair, including replacing the coal furnace with an oil burner. After renovating, they turned it into a rental property.
Among his wood projects, Mr. Leichner restored the 200-year-old bellows at the Quaker Barclay Farmstead in Cherry Hill. In Haddonfield, where Mr. Leichner had attended Haddonfield Memorial High School, he replaced 37 hymnal racks on the pews at Grace Episcopal. He used ash planks and stain to match the pews built in the 1900s, said a friend, Al Schmidt of Barrington.
"There wasn't anything he couldn't do with wood," Schmidt said.
Mr. Leichner served as Grace Episcopal's vestry senior warden, and was a tenor in the choir. He also knew how to move pianos - on several occasions he and Mr. Schmidt moved the church's baby grands.
When the church had to remove a cherry tree, Mr. Leichner salvaged its wood, his wife said, to make crosses for the church and for the family that had donated the tree years before in memory of a loved one.
When he was diagnosed with cancer, Mr. Leichner incorporated a combination of Western and Eastern medical practices for his treatment that Mrs. Leichner believes extended her husband's survival by years, especially after the cancer spread to a lung in 1998.
"He was like a miracle, really," Mrs. Leichner said. "He never gave up."
After his 15 years in remission, Mrs. Leichner said, doctors discovered the disease again about two years ago.
In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Leichner is survived by brothers David and Paul and a sister, Nancy Stokking.
The family will receive friends Friday, Dec. 9, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Kain-Murphy Funeral Home, 15 West End Ave., Haddonfield. Services will follow on Saturday, Dec. 10, at 10 a.m. at Grace Episcopal Church, 19 Kings Hwy. E, Haddonfield, NJ 08033, with private interment at Baptist Cemetery.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Grace Church Music Fund at the church address, or to the Melanoma Excellence Fund at the Abramson Cancer Center, 3535 Market St., Suite 750, Philadelphia, Pa. 19104.