Author, journalist knows the value of Catholic education

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By Kenneth J. Souza, Anchor Staff

WESTPORT, Mass. — Although he admits he wasn’t “the greatest student,” Mike Leonard truly appreciates the opportunity he had to attend Catholic elementary and high schools in suburban Chicago where he grew up, and later Providence College, where he earned a degree in economics.

“My Catholic education informed me in a lot of ways,” Leonard told The Anchor during a phone interview from his home in Winnetka, Ill. “Within that context, there was always a sense of order — we knew what was right and wrong. I had great nuns in school who were really, really tough. They were demanding, but it didn’t bother me. You learned what was right and what was wrong and sometimes you would just try to break the law to break the law.”

Leonard, a longtime feature correspondent for the NBC “Today” show and a best-selling author, will share some of those firsthand experiences as keynote speaker for the 18th annual St. Mary’s Education Fund Fall Dinner to be held November 27 at White’s of Westport beginning with a 5:30 p.m. reception.

Proceeds from the event benefit the St. Mary’s Education Fund, which provides need-based financial scholarships to students at Catholic elementary and middle schools throughout the Fall River Diocese.

“We had a sense of community in the Catholic schools that my friends in public schools didn’t have,” Leonard said. “We’d have things like pancake breakfasts and CYO Sunday basketball events and other fund-raisers. There was a sense of that parish being your community and your home. Even though we bristled sometimes under the discipline, all those demands were what made you better in life.”

For Leonard, it wasn’t only that close-knit sense of community from his Catholic upbringing that informed him later in life, but also a sense of creativity and humor.

“I think Catholics are very creative in their humor and creative in their fun, because we always had all this structure around us,” he said. “It was comforting, and it was also at times frustrating, but in the end I think it made us who we are.”

Despite having earned a degree in economics, Leonard embarked on a successful career as a filmmaker and TV journalist in 1980 when he was first hired as a feature correspondent for NBC News.

“I was working in Phoenix as a sportscaster, and I had only been in TV for a short time,” Leonard said. “I was doing a lot of stories that were feature-oriented, even though the subject was a sports-related person. So it appealed to more than just sports fans and I think NBC saw that. When they hired me I was basically told I could do what I want; so for the last 32 years I’ve been able to cover topics that I’m interested in, which is rare in this business.”

In addition to covering everything from political conventions to the Super Bowl and the World Series over the years, Leonard has displayed a unique talent for telling the extraordinary stories of ordinary people — reality TV that is truly based in reality.

“Today’s reality shows aren’t real, because when they produce them, they already have a conflict in mind,” Leonard said. “They might suggest one of the kids take a swing at another kid — so they goad that stuff on. They think they need to create a dramatic situation. They’re looking for these outlandish dramas that none of us ever really experience. I mean, isn’t there enough drama in our lives anyway?”

Leonard found there was plenty of drama to be had just within his own family when in 2004 he took his parents, then in their 80s, along with some of his adult children on a one-month, cross-country RV adventure that became the basis of a four-part “Today” show segment, and later a 12-part Public Television series, “The Ride of Our Lives — Roadside Lessons of an American Family,” which also spawned a New York Times best-selling book of the same name.

“My mom and dad were stuck in a rental home and realized they weren’t in walking distance to anybody, so I thought out of the blue they needed to get out and be mobile,” Leonard said. “I had an idea for getting an RV to travel and convinced all my kids to come along, too. We originally took home movies of the journey for ourselves and I turned four of those pieces into segments for the ‘Today’ show and got the offer to write the book and then did a public television series based on that.”

It’s this universal type of “everyman” tale that Leonard tells best.

“I do feature stories on everyday people in everyday situations because I think that is what is most lacking in the news these days,” he said. “I’ve done a story every year on where the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree comes from. It’s taken from someone’s yard and they pick the tree randomly, so I profile the person whose yard is selected. Now they’re just regular people, so in a sense you might think they might not have a story — but everyone does.

“For 20 years that segment has demonstrated that we all have our own stories. I just go where the tree is. They’re all interesting stories and I think that’s where the reality TV show folks miss the point.”

Also an accomplished filmmaker, Leonard more recently served as executive producer of the award-winning 10-part documentary series “Catholicism,” created and hosted by Chicago priest Father Robert Barron that aired on PBS and the Boston-based CatholicTV. Shot on location in 16 countries, the production explored the Catholic faith, its history and artistry, its beliefs and practices, through insightful spiritual commentary and stunning high-definition cinematography.

“Father Robert Barron would often come to our parish as a guest priest, maybe once a month,” Leonard said. “I thought he was very good and could really speak and one of our parishioners, a woman named Nancy Ross, was a former TV person in Charlotte, N.C., and she knew I was involved in TV as well. She arranged a meeting between us, and Father Barron told us he always had this idea to do a 10-part series. At the time, I said to him you might not want me, because I’m a good storyteller but I’m not the greatest Catholic. I felt I didn’t have the proper educational credentials as a Catholic to do the series.”

Leonard said Father Barron thought it was ideal to have someone like him on board to pose some of the serious questions that needed to be answered through the documentary.

“It worked out well because at the end of many of these episodes we were able to ask some of the basic questions that all Catholics have about these simple but very profound concepts — things like forgiveness and mercy,” he said. “To me, that was the strongest part of the series. I never was really that well versed in Catholic doctrine, but those messages of inclusion, mercy and compassion are so important in everyday life that I thought it was a fundamental instruction for people.”

Being able to travel to landmark sites in Rome, Europe and the Holy Land for the “Catholicism” series was also inspiring for Leonard.

“Just seeing the actual locations and imagining what it would have been like 2,000 years ago was profound,” he said.

Although there are no immediate plans to do a sequel or follow-up to “Catholicism,” Leonard said he hoped any future production would focus on how to put faith into action.

“I think it should show people out there doing good works, because I think after you get through the theory and the basics, you want to know it’s doable,” he said. “I learned that from doing stories on the ‘Today’ show. When you see someone doing something good, you want to go out and replicate it. I think that can inspire more people to do it, whether they’re Catholic or not. This wonderful work of mercy and compassion is happening all over the world.”

In addition to learning about charitable works of mercy through his Catholic education, Leonard also learned a bit about the value of teamwork during his years at Providence College.

“I found that same sense of community among the Dominican family and all the kids who went there,” Leonard said, adding he also played hockey for PC under coach Lou Lamoriello. “He won three Stanley Cups as the GM of the New Jersey Devils and he’s in the National Hockey League Hall of Fame and in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s a very tough and a very demanding coach, but he’s a really fair guy and I’ve stayed in touch with him over the years.”

If his Catholic elementary and high school education helped set a solid foundation for his adult life, then it was his formation at Providence College that helped him meet his career goals.

“I learned about discipline and teamwork and learned not to take any shortcuts,” Leonard said. “It helped me immensely years later as a journalist. All the priests, coaches and fellow students there really influenced me.”

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And apparently Leonard had a bit of an influence on at least one of his fellow PC graduates — a friend who ended up working for the Hasbro toy company in Pawtucket, R.I.

“I had done a couple of stories on Hasbro and I was in his office one day and he had a couple of G.I. Joe figures on his desk,” Leonard said, laughing. “I was looking at the faces and I asked who he used as the model. He told me they use people they know — the plant manager and other guys who work there — and he asked if I wanted to be one. I said, ‘Hell, yes.’”

It was thus that a journalist and “microwave transmission specialist” named Leonard Michaels, a/k/a “Scoop,” was introduced into the G.I. Joe action figure line in 1989 … inspired by none other than Mike Leonard.

“I told him I liked the nickname ‘Scoop,’ because I remembered in the Superman comics they used to call Jimmy Olsen ‘Scoop,’” Leonard said. “They called him Leonard Michaels — they turned my name around backwards. He had a really bad outfit: it was green and gold. I saw them in the store and was always tempted to tell people: ‘Hey, that’s me,’ but I was afraid the store manager might have me arrested.”

Leonard joked that he’s probably the only action figure who’s lived a life of “inaction.”

“The one benefit is I’ll be in a landfill well-preserved 2,000 years from now,” he said.

Having achieved great success in life — much of which he credits to his Catholic education and upbringing — Leonard hopes the St. Mary’s Education Fund will provide others with the same opportunities he had growing up.

“Knowing you could improve the life of someone else improves your own life,” he said. “When you throw a few stones in the pond and the ripples start — those are very real. I’ve seen people do little things that have rippled out and you never know the extent of how far those ripples go because they’ll never come back and tell you. They probably don’t even know it’s you.

“Having those scholarships available and giving those kids an opportunity is like throwing more stones into the pond and those ripples will keep colliding into each other and getting bigger and spreading. You can try to save the world or you can try to save your neighborhood; and I think providing a Catholic education is a way of providing people with an opportunity to weather the storms of life.”

Those interested in supporting the Fall Dinner or obtaining more information on the St. Mary’s Education Fund should contact the Diocesan Development Office at 508-675-1311.

© 2014 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing, Fall River, Mass.