by Jim Boyle
To Rachel Leonard, the world is her classroom. This is especially true in the little corner of the world she has carved out for herself, her family, her community in Zimmerman and her county.
The University of Minnesota alumna, an educator of 30 years, an attorney for the working poor and middle class, mother of three, grandmother of many more, former member of the Elk River Area School Board, Sherburne County Commissioner and lifelong member of the American Legion has made her mark in everything she has touched.
And she’s not afraid to talk about it.
“It’s not bragging,” she said. “It’s talking about people. I feel very strongly the success I have had is because people have been there to help at pivotal times in my life. Even when I was a youngster.”
Her daughter, Pam, a published mystery author, has urged her over the years to write a book, something Leonard has pooh-poohed but has began giving serious consideration. The book would illustrate how adversity is not all bad. Lessons as a child and becoming a widow with three children taught her a lot and helped her be the community leader she has become.
The Three Rivers Community Foundation will honor her on Oct. 8 with a community leadership award. The University of Minnesota will honor her with a Distinguished Alumni Award on Nov. 21..
Life hasn’t been easy
Leonard admitted she could have easily turned to a life of crime as a youngster. She might have even been good at it, until she got caught, she said.
Her mother, however, breathed strength, character and a spirit of persistence in her.
“She was never bitter,” Leonard said. “If she had been, I would have turned the other way.
“It’s a good thing she believed in the goodness of people and life.”
Her mother came to America with her uncle and would have gone back had she not fell in love and had children. Life was good at first, but when her husband turned to liquor, relationships suffered. He became abusive.
Leonard’s mother snuck away with her children back to Norway, but her husband sobered up and wrote impassioned pleas for her to return. Things would be different. And they were for a time while he made his way in farming. When that went away and he began to work as a butcher in a grocery store, things soured again as some years passed.
Mother and children again moved out. Rachel stayed with another family and, throughout her youth, came across countless people who demonstrated extreme care and concern for her.
One was a school principal who asked her to care for his twin daughters while his wife was ill.
“I was honored,” she said, noting she looked after the children and happily took care of the chores. It was a pleasure, she recalled.
When the principal asked how much he owed her, Leonard said she couldn’t take money. But he later got her a briefcase she would use as a college student.
“He understood that I meant it, even though I needed the money,” she said.
Leonard has lived frugally. She has done much for others with her own money, and she has worked for free as lawyer to help hard-working people out of jams.
She sends all Sherburne County newborns a welcome letter on her own letterhead and on her own dime.
She has adopted classrooms of kindergarten students and stuck with them through graduation. Over the years that meant she dropped in to read to them. One year she took them all to the movies. When she traveled to Austrialia and her homeland of Norway, she brought each student a coin.
To each of these 40 children at Zimmerman Elementary School, she promised a $50 U.S. savings bond as a graduation gift. All but two earned it. One got it after completing a GED.
For Leonard, it meant she had to RSVP for about 35 graduation open houses, including one from a student who had moved to Cambridge.
“They felt good about it,” Leonard said. “To have another human being who didn’t have to do these things do them and not forget about them, they loved it.”
Leonard’s heart was broken as a child when her mother mustered up the courage to ask a well-to-do family for money for food. It was at a time in Leonard’s life that she was being taken care of by another family. Her mother was looking for a small amount of money to feed the rest of her children.
“It still brings tears to my eyes,” she said, wiping away fresh teardrops as she spoke. “This is why I am going to have trouble writing a book.”
Accomplishments are many for Leonard
Leonard finds it easy to recount her success as a community leader and promoter of education.
She has four degrees from the University of Minnesota, including three that are “on target” with her educational career, and a law degree from William Mitchell College of Law. She worked her way through school, paying as she went along from jobs she landed.
She spent about seven years as a teacher, another decade as a school counselor and much of her time as a principal and assistant to Minneapolis Public School Superintendent Dr. Richard Green.
“I respected him so much,” she said.
Among the tasks she performed for him was traveling with 35 students on a trip to Israel and writing a book on integration, which was published.
Before she finished up her career in education, her brother had asked if she wanted to buy a farm with him in Zimmerman.
By then she was a widow, and she thought it would be good for her boys. The family moved north after Pam graduated from high school. Eric was a seventh-grader upon moving; Todd was just starting the first grade.
As a member of the Zimmerman Chamber, she brought the “adopt a school” program she championed to the school as a way to connect businesses with the schools.
She also served on the Elk River Area School Board. In her time on the board, she pushed through a controversial plan to build a middle school in Zimmerman.
“That was smart thinking,” she said.
Eventually it was expanded to a middle and high school.
But when credit was handed over on a plaque to the people that made the high school a reality, she spoke up for the people that led the effort to decentralize the school district and build the middle school.
“I told them, they should pay attention to the ones with the junior high plan that was crafted,” she said. “I’m selfish enough to say it. That third pod was easy enough to do, and it was supposed to be a junior high.”
Leonard said she did her part.
“I’ll tell you the classes that graduate, the kids in them take care of one another,” she said. “They have the right philosophy. … I don’t hear about bullying, which is so detrimental.”
Leonard has also worked with Dee Doherty’s second-grade classrooms to make sure they are given a chance to earn a book from her. They must figure out a way to read three books during a given period of time.
“Their folks could read them to them,” she said. “They could pick comic books. I don’t want any kid to feel they could not get the reward.”
Leonard’s passions are not limited to the classroom and education, however. She is as passionate about her work for the Zimmerman American Legion, the Sherburne County Board, the Sherburne County Historical Society and the Three Rivers Community Foundation.
At the legion she became the auxiliary chaplain and helped put together the Memorial Day program as part of her responsibilities. She also held dinners for teachers at the Legion. And when she got her law degree, she did some legal work for the Legion.
She’s proudest, however, of a fund drive she led for a POW. She led the effort to match a Lutheran Brotherhood agreement to contribute. The money raised helped with medical expenses and extended the man’s life.
“He came to the church one time and gave me the biggest hug,” she said. “I think it gave him a dozen more years.”
Leonard joined the effort to bring about the Sherburne History Center at the request of John Kuester, of Elk River. She promoted the historical society and the drive by giving memberships as gifts. She also fundraised. And she also published books to bring history to life for people of all ages, especially children.
As a lawyer, Leonard has been written about in the Minnesota Bar Association journal as a solo practitioner who makes house calls.
She said she helps “those people who have so much pride and the middle class.”
She admitted a lot of people don’t like lawyers.
“They welcome me into their homes with a cup of coffee,” she said.
Although her law practice will never recoup all of her tuition fees that she rendered during her schooling, she did help start a mock trial at Elk River High School.
She has been involved at her church, working on everything from the church council and leading the building program to teaching Sunday school, confirmation and Bible school. She has also worked with the women’s group to promote mother-daughter projects.
She has also helped the Zimmerman Civic Club with Wild West Days.
As a county commissioner, she said she tries to go above and beyond the call of duty.
“You have to do the regular stuff with zest,” she said. “But I also go to bat for people. We don’t always win, but they love it that I am there for them.”
Leonard is proud of her work to secure a $2 million Legacy Amendment grant for the Elk River YMCA, a classroom that was constructed as part of the methane gas energy demonstration site at the Elk River Landfill and the county’s veteran’s memorial in Becker.
As board member for Fairview, she helped at the time that a clinic was located in Zimmerman.
She appears to love talking about these endeavors, but when given a chance to talk about whom she admires most, she says it’s her kids.
“They’re the real heroes,” she said. “I praise my kids every day. They are the heroes in my life.”
All of her children and grandchildren have something in common with their mother and grandmother. They are all alumni of the University of Minnesota.
“Some people like to say you’re no good because you came from nothing,” she said. “I’m proud of what I have accomplished.”
She may even write it all down and publish it in a book someday. One entry might be on her leadership honor from the Three River Community Foundation Leadership Award.