It's a Family Thing
By Suzy Frisch, Photo Courtesy of Rachel Leonard
Left to right, Eric, Jill, Alex, Kyle, Todd, Rachel, and Mitchell Leonard, David Cowardin, and Pam and Katie Leonard
When Rachel Leonard left her small southern Minnesota hometown to work her way through college, she didn’t set out to create a three-generation legacy. But that’s exactly what happened.
Leonard (A.A. ’53, B.A. ’55, B.S. ’57, M.A. ’63) first earned an associate’s and then two bachelor’s degrees in political science, history, and education at the University. While working in the schools, she completed two advanced degrees, in education administration and educational psychology. Ultimately, all of her children and five grandchildren followed in her footsteps.
“I think the University gave me a chance to help myself, and my kids saw that, too,” says Leonard, who became a widow when her youngest son, Todd, was 2. “It also taught me about lifelong learning, justice, and applying it to the everyday things around you.” Leonard has followed those principles throughout her life. She spent 30 years as a teacher, school counselor, and principal in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools, earned a law degree in her 50s from William Mitchell College of Law, obtained a pilot’s license, and volunteered for countless causes.
As an attorney—at age 81, she still practices—Leonard focuses on helping ordinary people with their legal issues, often through house calls. And she also applies her legal skills as a four-term Sherburne County commissioner. Her current term is up in 2016. Though she’s not one to boast of her accomplishments, Leonard can’t help herself when it comes to her family: children Pam (B.A. ’74, M.D. ’84, M.P.H. ’91), Eric (B.S. ’85, J.D. ’90), Todd (M.D. ’96, UMD), daughter-in-law Jill (Jansen) Leonard (B.S. ’88), who is married to Eric, and grandchildren Alexandra (B.A. ’10), Kyle, and Mitchell Leonard and David (B.A. ’11, UMD) and Katie Cowardin (B.A. ’08). Kyle is a senior and Mitchell a freshman at the U.
Going to Minnesota was a no-brainer for Pam. Throughout her life, she saw her mom’s pride in being an alumna. “We grew up understanding what it meant for her and how many doors it opened,” says Pam, a retired internist and three-time mystery novelist. “As a family we were raised with that mindset and felt a strong allegiance to the U of M.”
Third-generation alumna Alex, who majored in strategic communications, didn’t realize how much she wanted to attend the U until she was put on the wait list. When she eventually got in, she made the most of it, soaking up as much as she could about mass communication, management, and design before landing a job as an account executive at a Minneapolis advertising agency.
“The U is a connection for all of us,” Alex says. “We’re all proud we went there, and it’s a fun thread we share.”
Rachel’s ethic of giving has stayed with her children, especially her commitment to public service. Todd, a family physician, started a company that provides medical care to inmates. Eric has been a Ramsey County criminal prosecutor for the past 17 years.
From serving his community to becoming a leader, Eric says he gained more than a stellar education when he earned a bachelor’s degree in business and a Juris Doctor from the U. “It’s a place that teaches the idea of self-reliance and working hard,” he adds. “It’s our home-state school, and it’s had such an influence on so many members of my family. It becomes more than just a school. It becomes part of your community.”