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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."

Condolences & Shared Memories (28)

  1. Donna McParlan

    So sad to say good bye to Brian. He was such an alive and full of life guy. Very, very thoughtful and favorite spin instructor. My deepest sympathy to Brian's family. He will be greatly missed.

  2. Josie Peebles

    Mary, so very sorry to hear of your Husband 's passing.All of us experience losses.I think the 2 greatest losses are the loss of a child and the loss of a spouse. Your husband was such an amazing man- husband,father, mentor ,writer and so many other things.He really accomplished a lot in a life cut short by a heart attack. Cherish all the memories of all the good times you shared together-they will sustain you during this most difficult time. God Bless!

  3. Linda Ylitalo

    I hope these words help you a bit, Mary -- "You - you alone will have the stars as no one else has them ... In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night ... You - only you - will have stars that can laugh." -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

  4. Dan Warren

    Mary, I'm so sorry I didn't see this until the 28th. Brian was a great guy, which rings out loud and clear in all of these comments. He was one of my favorite writers and rarely needed more than just a little tweaking. Kudos to whoever wrote this obit: It was a great read and left me nodding in agreement. You and your family will be in my prayers; Brian won't need any where he's headed.

  5. Phil Pash

    So sorry to hear of Brian's passing. Without all the flowery prose, he was a good guy -- and that alone is meaningful in today's world. We had many talks about our similar interests: Hunting, fishing and the outdoor world. Even newspapering -- the way it used to be.

  6. Mike & Brenda Moore

    Mary Brian will be missed. I enjoyed sharing stories about the kids as they grew to adulthood.

  7. Joan Schmelzle

    Mary and family. I am so sorry for your loss. I enjoyed reading Brian's stories in the paper as I have yours, Mary. Please know you have my deepest sympathy.

  8. Larry Wahler

    It is with profound sadness that I attempt to sympathize with your loss. Your Brian was torn away from you like a beautifully-inspiring tree ripped out in a storm. And it is with profound gratitude to him for making his spirit available to folks like me who need to know that the human condition is worth it after all. Thank you, dear brother.

  9. Jeff Gordon

    Brian cared deeply about his community, his newspaper and his co-workers. That's why he supported The Newspaper Guild's efforts to represent the newsroom. That's why he eventually became active as vice chair of the unit. He respected his newsroom managers and their commitment to excellence, but he was concerned about what the out-of-town owners were doing to the Register Star. He took great pride in Rockford's resurgence and he knew quality local journalism was vital to that progress. He was a tremendous advocate for his community. Most of all, he was just an amazing person -- bright, interesting, funny and caring. All of us that spent time with him are so much better for it.

  10. Ron Robinson

    My thoughts and condolences are with Brian's family, it is too soon to say good-bye to my high school friend, Brian always had a way to put a smile on my face. Rest in peace!

  11. Cliff Dawson

    My heart is filled with memories of cousin Brian getting out of the family car and grabbing his fishing pole to make sure that after a few quick "Hello's", hugging Auntie Mya and Uncle Jack, and grabbing a few mocha bars, he could head out to get his feet and line in the Michigamme river. The world is a little less bright with his passing, and I hope his love for his family will fill all of your hearts in this time of loss. No words can ease such pain, but we can take peace in the knowledge that his was a spirit that worked to make our world a better place.

  12. Valeri DeCastris

    What a shock and such a loss. Rockford has lost a great writer and his family their loved one. I didn't know Brian well, but appreciated his journalism and droll sense of humor and outlook. Thank you Brian for your article on Magpie restaurant and for patronizing it. Many condolences to Mary and his family at this sad time. RIP Brian. You left us too soon.

  13. Lori Lange

    I will miss you. All your help and guidence that last few months is so appreciated. Your ideas built confidence in me and my students. Thank you- I would have liked to have gotten to know you better.

  14. Rick & Cindy Simonovich

    We are so sorry for your loss. The Y spin class won't be the same without Brian. He was a wealth of trivia & unusual music which made his class unique. He will be truly missed & our prayers are with all of you at this time of grief. With time comes healing & you'll always have your fond memories to share. Sincerely, Rick & Cindy Simonovich

  15. Jim and Peggy

    Our deepest sympathy to Aunt Elise, Mary, Leo, Sally, Diane and Susan. Brian will be missed by all who knew him. Jim and Peggy Leaf.

  16. Terri Lindmark

    Brian was the voice of learned integrity and provided complete information on important community matters. He will be missed by all--his family was of value to him above all else. We are deeply saddened. Respectfully, Terri Lindmark

  17. Linda Marks-Brown

    It is with great sadness I leave condolences to the Leaf family. May God be with you all at this sorrowful time. I met Brian at the RRS and he was a very interesting guy. I enjoyed talking with him. Brian would bring Roy in often to show me the large words he taught him to say and spell. Brian brought a humorous side to everything he did. Mary, Roy & Sally, my prayers are for your strength. Rest In Peace, my interesting friend.

  18. Jim Barnes

    One of the kindest, gentle and thoughtful people with whom I ever worked. My heart goes out to Mary and their children. He was a wonderful human being.

  19. Teresa D. Henderson

    I only knew Brian for a short period of time while at the School District of Beloit. I have read a number of things lately about him and his contribution to this world. He left a great legacy for his family, friends and acquaintances. Lean on each other in the days ahead and know others are praying for you to find strength and comfort during this difficult time.

  20. George B Graham Jr

    June 2013 my phone rings. My friend Brian Leaf is calling to inquire about a "Johnny Graham", still listed as MIA after the Korean War. Brian states, "I'm just taking a chance with this call because you share the same name, Graham". So began a month of gatherings at my home, phone calls, as well as my trusting Brian to take, what amounted to 50 plus years of research I had put into a book form of my Uncle Johnnie's life. This book had never been out of my possession. Brian took my book, applied his talent as a writer and proceeded to write an amazing 2 and 1/2 page story, published in the Rockford Register Star, July 21, 2013. His work on this story touch 100's if not 1000's of lives. I will miss Brian, the "Man" as well as Brian the "Writer". My sincere Condolences to Brian's entire family. Respectfully: George B Graham Jr.

  21. Linnea Bengtsson

    I am so very saddened to hear about the passing of Brian. I had the pleasure to know him and work with him over the past years in my role as connecting Lidköping, Sweden and Rockford. I will miss seeing him at Wired Café and at other places and occasions. My deepest condolences to Mary and the family. Warm regards, Linnea Bengtsson.

  22. Shawn Fredricks

    Peace... I am grateful to have had Brian touch my life, even though it was for such a short period of time.

  23. Beverly Broyles

    Brian was a wonderful friend and neighbor. I will miss him. My love and condolences to Mary, Roy, Sally and to his Mom and sisters.

  24. Karen Coron

    I am still in shock over Brian's passing, and so close to Cutters. I have so many wonderful memories which I will always cherish. A huge regret that I am unable to attend his funeral as I am in Orange Beach for another month. God's Speed to you all.with great love..... Karen

  25. Kris & Dan Westbrook

    There are no words to express the sorrow we feel for Brian's family. In time of such grief we need to turn to God for comfort. Life can be so cruel but Brian brought a lot of beauty into this world and touched so many lives.

  26. Karla Clark

    Mary, I am so very sorry for your loss. You and the kids are in my prayers. I am sorry but I will be out of town for a business trip and will be unable to pay my respects on Sunday. Nonie said she will give you a hug for me. God bless you.

  27. ATT

    My deepest condolences to Mary, Roy and Sally. May your family bonds deepen and strengthen you during this time and going forward.

  28. Cathy Ward

    Mary, Roy and Sally, Our deepest sympathy. We share your sorrow and many special memories. May God be with you until you all meet again.

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