Former Gov. Leader remembered as advocate for reform

Gov. Corbett (left) greets former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel at the service. Former Gov. George M. Leader died May 9.
Gov. Corbett (left) greets former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel at the service. Former Gov. George M. Leader died May 9. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 18, 2013

HERSHEY, Pa. - There was no military honor guard. No flag-draped casket. No politicians pontificating.

Instead, the life of Pennsylvania's 36th governor, George M. Leader, was celebrated Thursday with family memories, a haunting rendition of "We Shall Overcome," and lines of his own poetry - as he had scripted his own funeral, years ago.

Every living governor except William W. Scranton, 95, whose family said he was too ill to attend, filled the pews of Derry Presbyterian Church along with 150 friends, family, and former coworkers.

Leader, a Democrat who served as governor from 1956 to 1959 but stayed in civic and business life for decades thereafter, was 95 when he died May 9 at his home here.

His three children recalled their father as a man of action who lived by the motto, "If not me, then who?" - and who possessed a generous spirit that extended from helping prisoners at Graterford to orphans in Ghana.

Son George III remembered the diehard Philadelphia sports fan who sweated out Phillies seasons and just months ago lamented the 76ers' poor record in a conversation with former Gov. Ed Rendell, wondering whether their season could be saved.

A one-term governor and seventh-generation farmer from York County, Leader spent two-thirds of his life out of politics. He raised chickens and cattle and devoted a half-century to building a business of nursing homes that specialized in care for dementia patients.

He also advocated as recently as this year for nonpartisan causes such as prison reform and so-called merit selection of judges.

His daughter, Jane Leader Janeczek, said her father choreographed his funeral 12 years ago - from the hymns to be sung to the epitaph on his headstone - on notes tucked in a manila folder titled "My Funeral."

In song and psalm, Leader chose words that spoke to living a compassionate and righteous life that rose above politics.

His younger son, David, shared stories of his playful side: wanting to buy the Berks County tourist attraction Roadside America and open a chain of miniature American villages, mulling the prospect of starting a wildlife park on his farm, hatching an idea to run a restaurant that served only eggs.

"He challenged the status quo at every turn," said David Leader. "He always believed he might make a difference."

As the second-youngest governor in Pennsylvania history, Leader, 37 when he took office, transformed a bureaucracy awash in patronage to one run by professionals, and broke race and religion barriers by appointing the first African American and Jewish cabinet secretaries.

"He wanted to use diversity to our advantage and not worry about superficial labels," George Leader III said.

Leader lost a race for U.S. Senate in his final year as governor, and embarked on a career in health care, developing a chain of nursing homes and pioneering social programming tailored for people with Alzheimer's.

With his wife, Mary Jane, who died in 2011, Leader founded the G.M. Leader Family Laboratory for Alzheimer's Disease Research at Penn State Hershey College of Medicine.

He also founded Second Chance Prison Ministries to help inmates transition into society after release, and traveled to every state prison to attend graduations. In the last year, he campaigned for prison-reform legislation signed into law by Gov. Corbett to develop alternatives for nonviolent offenders.

"He always was interested in the welfare of the disenfranchised," said Janeczek. "He said, 'I never thought I'd see prison reform in my lifetime.' "

Leader also served as elder statesman to generations of officeholders from both parties. At the funeral were Corbett and Rendell, as well as former Govs. Tom Ridge, Dick Thornburgh, and Mark Schweiker, and former Lt. Govs. Mark Singel and Bill Scranton III.

After the service, Ridge, a Republican, described Leader as neither Democrat nor Republican, but a member of "the people's party."

"He was a visionary," said another Republican, Corbett. "He was not afraid to try something new."

A family spokeswoman said Leader would be buried at a family cemetery in York County.


Contact Amy Worden

at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @inkyamy.

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