State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Gov. George Leader celebrated before burial

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | May 16, 2013 3:25 PM
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Family, friends, and fixtures of state politics are remembering Governor George Leader for being a tireless tinkerer - a man inspired by new ideas, and always ready to go on to the next thing.

Leader died at age 95 last week. At a memorial service Thursday his children recounted stories of their father and poked fun at his memory, at turns resisting and then contributing to a growing legend about one of the state's most beloved governors.

Youngest son David perhaps got the most jokes into his remembrance, noting how his father hatched idea after idea, calling all of them brilliant, if only out of habit. Sure, he launched a successful nursing company in the 1960s, David said:

"But he also launched in the '60s a miniature Sardinia donkey farm, and then explored turning our family farm into a wild animal park and later a KOA campground," the youngest son of the late governor said. "Those didn't do so well."

"Dad's sense of urgency was off the chart," David continued. "He was the ultimate 'ready, aim, fire' manager. We all made fun of him for it, but the truth was he got more done in a day than most of us got done in a week."

Leader's daughter, Jane Leader Janeczek read a letter her father wrote as a college student, urging his own father, at a difficult time, to buck up and count his blessings.

"'If you don't feel thankful every morning when you get up, thankful every evening as the sun goes down, thankful that you're able to partake of those great free goods available to everyone alive, then you'd better take yourself in hand and revamp your attitude,'" said Janeczek, reading from the letter. "This is a 21-year-old speaking to his father," she said.

Leader's eldest son, Mike, (formally George Michael Leader III), remembered his father's resilience after a failed bid for U.S. Senate.

"He was a poultry farmer without a poultry farm, and he was a politician whose promising political career had come crashing down, and if he felt sorry for himself, I didn't observe it," said Mike. His father set about throwing himself right into his next career in the health care field, he said.

"It probably was more satisfying for him than six years in the Senate might have been," said Mike. "I'm not sure the Senate moved fast enough for him, to tell you the truth."

Leader is known for revamping the state's mental health system, clearing political patronage jobs from the upper echelons of state agencies, and making cabinet appointments that broke new ground in Pennsylvania - the state's first black department secretary; the selection of the man responsible for the state's modern parks system. Perhaps Leader's most widely unpopular move was enacting a state sales tax to fill the commonwealth's deficit.

Gov. Corbett and former governors - Ed Rendell, Tom Ridge, Dick Thornburgh, and Mark Schweiker, as well as former lieutenant governors Mark Singel and William Scranton - attended the service at Derry Presbyterian Church in Hershey, Dauphin County.

"There’s probably no one who’s had more of an impact in the different facets of the life of the state than Gov. Leader," said Rendell. 

Ridge said he saw Leader as a fellow traveler -- in the sense that, though a Democrat, Leader also appreciated what Ridge called the art of governing.

"And part of the art to governing isn't necessarily giving up your principle, but finding common ground and moving the common interest forward," said Ridge. "He got it."

Family and friends will hold a private burial.

Janeczek, Leader's daughter, mentioned her father's most recent participation in the Corbett administration's effort to overhaul the state prison system.

"It was so great to see him energized and handling press conferences and Patriot-News interviews like the pro that he was," she said. "I felt like I was getting a little glimpse of the man who had been the governor when I was just a toddler."

This post has been updated to include the attendance of former Gov. Mark Schweiker and former Lt. Govs. Mark Singel and William Scranton.

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