Rare is the employee who leaves a community richer for their body of work or leaves those they work alongside smiling, confident, inspired.
Rarer still is someone who does both – someone like Bernard Leach.
Retiring after 26 years with Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation, recreation supervisor Bernard Leach leaves for greener athletic fields. And it was evident from co-workers and community members on hand for his retirement luncheon last Thursday at the Chapel Hill Community Center that Leach was both loved and respected.
While the atmosphere was celebratory, there was a sadness and agreement among those present that Leach, 55, would be virtually impossible to replace.
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“I only came over to Parks and Rec about four years ago, so I haven’t known him as long as some other folks have, but don’t even want to think about him being gone,” administrative assistant Mary Lee Tyndall said. “He’s what keeps me sane on most days.”
“Tracey (Link) and I are at the front desk at the Plant Road offices, and we deal with the public quite a bit, so it’s nice to have somebody like Bernard to tell us to take a deep breath sometimes,” Tyndall said.
“Bernard’s always been a really great friend, both at work and outside of work,” said Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation administrative coordinator and former Community Center director Lisa Baaske, who began her tenure around the same time as Leach. “We have a lot of shared experiences together. ... I just hope he saves me a chapter in his book when he writes it.”
Special Olympics coordinator Colleen Lanigan said Leach’s management style was empowering.
“He just always worked well with my style,” Lanigan said. “He never micromanaged, plus he’s always just been so good with my athletes. He’s genuinely affectionate and warm and interactive with them.”
Welcoming around 100 friends and co-workers to the festivities, Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation director Jim Orr said Leach had been immensely valuable, and good-natured.
“That’s what Bernard exemplifies – someone trying to put a little fun in the administration of Parks and Recreation. He’s always been somebody willing to do whatever needs to be done,” Orr said.
“Bernard taught me that there are usually more ways to do things than you initially see. From his work at Pittsboro before coming to Chapel Hill and then here, his institutional knowledge has certainly helped me.
Current Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation aquatics director Robb English will do double-duty this summer, taking over Leach’s duties and maintaining his director position at the Homestead Aquatic Center until that position can be filled.
Still, while English will do his best to fill Leach’s administrative shoes, the retiring Leach leaves a legacy throughout the community.
Looking back, Leach said he remembers best the addition of synthetic turf at Cedar Falls Park and the rise in popularity of “pickleball” as most noteworthy.
“Yeah, there was pickleball,” athletics specialist Mike Troutman said, “but he also expanded the athletic camps over the past few years, and he brought youth football back to Chapel Hill.”
Leach agreed: “The biggest memory I’ll have is of bringing back youth football to Chapel Hill,” he said. “Being able to field four teams – one in each age group – that was a real nice accomplishment for us.”
John Brunner, who joined the office as recreation manager just four months ago, said he remembers working with Leach while he was with UNC Athletics.
“He was just so helpful,” Brunner said. “Last fall, for example, when I was still at UNC, we were having so much trouble with rain, we had to play a Division I women’s soccer game against Boston College at Chapel Hill’s Cedar Falls Park. He was so great to set us up with training space there.”
Orr said Leach was willing to fight for what he thought would work for the community, even if it meant taking on the boss.
“I had a rough experience with pickleball when I was still working in Asheville,” Orr said. “So, when it came here, promoted by J.B. Marr, Jim Wilson, and Brad Hemminger, I was kind of stand-offish. When Bernard brought the idea to me here, I told him, ‘I don’t want to deal with it.’ Then, all of a sudden, we’ve got 200 people playing at the Community Center and at Hargraves.
“Bernard told me these organizers wanted to talk with me. The group came to Bernard ... then it was about Bernard seeing a need and coming to me, saying, ‘Hey, we really need to do more.’ If it wasn’t for his assistance, it would probably still be just indoors” and not at the new Ephesus courts.
Opened in April, six new dedicated pickleball courts adjacent to Ephesus Elementary School are now in high demand on busy days – even moreso that the tennis courts at the same facility.
Like the tennis courts, Leach said he plans to lay fallow for a bit.
“I’m going to take some time off, and once I get bored, I’ll trying doing something else,” he said. “I have my 30 years here, so maybe I’ll try to get into another town system. I’m just 55, so I’ve got another 10 years.”
That means Leach could offer up another decade of service to some fortunate community, inspiring more co-workers, and impacting more athletes.