412 N. Church St.
Rockford, IL 61103
Born: Wednesday, July 1, 1959
Passed: Wednesday, February 22, 2017
2/26/2017 | 3:00 pm -
Emmanuel Episcopal Church
Add to Calendar 2/26/2017 2/26/2017 11 Brian Leaf Memorial Brian Leaf Memorial at Emmanuel Episcopal Church Emmanuel Episcopal Church Olson Funeral Homes firstname.lastname@example.org true DD/MM/YYYY
Brian Leaf had awful penmanship, and if tasked with writing his own obituary he'd probably blow his deadline and his prose would be riddled with typos and lame puns.
Every reporter needs an editor. And every editor needs a reporter like Leaf, a natural writer with a self-deprecating wit and knack for telling stories about people and places on the margins and under the radar.
Leaf, 57, died this morning. He suffered a heart attack while teaching a spin class at the downtown YMCA, where he has taught spin for 10 years.
Reading Leaf's reportage is like looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. The image is small, but you see it in the context of a larger frame.
His take on a Vietnam veteran with a Purple Heart learning to play guitar is a window to the plight of millions of American vets learning to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The Cat Man of Mulberry Street is a loopy tale of drug addiction and learning to forgive yourself. A single mom's struggle to earn a GED simultaneously becomes a story about the value of education and a city that has struggled to assign value to it.
Leaf was born in Superior, Wisconsin, grew up in Wausau, Wisconsin, and maintained a lifelong monogamous relationship with the Green Bay Packers.
He earned a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire, and in 1982 was hired by then City Editor Geri Nikolai as an environmental reporter at the Wausau Daily Herald. There, he spun yarns about water contamination, air pollution, acid rain and landfills and - in the words of his LinkedIn bio - "probed the crossroads of pollution and human health."
It was in the Wausau newsroom that Leaf met Mary Kaull, a fellow reporter whom he married in 1987. A year later, Leaf, Kaull and Nikolai were working alongside one another as reporters in the Rockford Register Star newsroom.
Leaf had lifelong passion for nature and the outdoors. He went on trips with his friend, Rockford attorney Laird Lambert, to hunt pheasant, ruffed grouse and woodcock, and in more recent years, with his son, Roy.
"When we were kids, he'd take us on nature walks at lunchtime and we'd go bug hunting," said his daughter, Sally Leaf. "And every summer, we used to catch monarch caterpillars and raise them into butterflies. It was really important to my father that we understood the life cycle of the monarch. He taught us science and nature and life - all through those monarch butterflies."
After 10 years as a business reporter, Leaf left the Register Star to be a stay-at-home dad. He returned to the newsroom in 2010 and stayed for six more years. He left the newspaper in October for the school district of Beloit, Wisconsin, where he served as public information officer.
Lambert years ago coaxed Leaf into serving on the board of directors of Severson Dells Nature Center, and before he returned to the Register Star, Leaf was a fundraiser and marketer for the nonprofit education center at Severson Dells Forest Preserve southwest of Rockford.
At Severson Dells, Leaf turned his vast knowledge of indie music into fundraisers for the nonprofit education center. He suggested booking a Paul Thorn show in 2011 as a benefit for the organization. The show was a hit, and Thorn has since garnered loads of critical acclaim.
Leaf also jazzed up the education center's newsletter, gave the organization a social media presence and helped longtime education director Don Miller sharpen his own writing skills.
"I took pride in what I wrote, but Brian would critique your writing with a gentle hammer," said Miller, who is now retired. "He knew how not to crush you, but to suggest how to improve what you'd written. I always admired his talent for writing. And when you get encouragement from people like that, it makes you want to follow through and do something. Not more than a month ago, he encouraged me to write a music column."
Leaf sang in the adult choir and was always helping people quietly and behind the scenes at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Rockford, said Trish Rooney, the church's assistant music director. Register Star Executive Editor Mark Baldwin joined the church after moving to Rockford in 2012, and several of Leaf's friends quickly became good friends to him.
"That was Brian's greatest gift: his friendship," Baldwin said.
Nikolai said Leaf loved his coffee and his beer. He never said an unkind word about anyone. And as much as he liked to talk, he always listened a lot more, she said.
"He was never the loudest guy in the newsroom or in the bar," Nikolai said. "But before the night was over he would make some observation or comment that would capture it all. The more I think of Brian, the more I think of him as a kind of philosopher, sometimes a funny one, sometimes a serious one."
Nikolai wrote a gardening column for the Register Star for several years, and she remembers planting a garden in her own backyard years ago. Leaf paid her a visit, armed with a bunch of native plants and perennials that he'd dug up.
"Those Virginia bluebells that he gave me still bloom every spring," Nikolai said. "They multiplied and they moved all over my yard. They come up very early and then they go away and you forget about them until the next spring. I always bring a bouquet of them into the house."