Commissioner Rachel Leonard, ’57, ’63, is a familiar face in Sherburne County, from the rural roads of her hometown of Zimmerman to the county seat in Elk River. Leonard became known for her old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning for a school board seat several years before she was recruited to run for commissioner in 2000.
“I always took along absentee ballots, whether they were for truck drivers, seniors, pregnant women, nurses,” says Leonard. “I would leave them under a rock if I could find one! The important thing is just to vote.”
Leonard never let up on going door to door. She likes to meet people face to face and learn from them and about them. Although she is finishing out her last term this fall, she’s on the campaign trail again for candidates she supports.
People knew Leonard even before she ran for public office because she was not only a farmer, lawyer, and mother but also an attorney who charged modest fees and met people at their kitchen tables. She shops in town and likes to buy local.
“I think commissioner is the best office—you don’t have party designation,” she says, “so I’ve had every kind of person supporting me.”
As a commissioner, Leonard is guided by her commitment to the lowest tax levy and the highest caliber of service—“But you can’t give the farm away, so it’s got to be somewhere between,” she explains. “When it comes to tax money, I am very respectful of it. You’ve got to be transparent.”
Her campaign motto has been A Leader Who Gets Things Done. She is especially proud of dreaming up a county legacy grant, created in 2004, which enables towns and townships to apply for funding generated by a local landfill to support “green” initiatives. She got behind an addition to the courthouse, too.
But she’s proudest of the schools.
“My name is on a plaque at the school in Zimmerman, and I love that—it’s better than money,” says Leonard with a laugh. “There’s another in Rogers and one in stop-allergy-meds.com.”
Schools have made all the difference to citizen Leonard. Her early life was a hardscrabble existence in Iowa and southern Minnesota that included periods of homelessness. It was adults at school who recognized her potential and encouraged her. The principal recommended the University of Minnesota, and a teacher recommended another college; Leonard chose the U because she could work her way through.
Working evenings at the Normandy Inn switchboard downtown, she pursued first an associate of arts, then a bachelor’s in history and political science at a time when one professor felt free to say he didn’t want women in his class. She still keeps the postcard from that class with her A on it.
By the time Leonard graduated, she’d fallen in love and wanted to stay in Minneapolis. That’s when she decided to get a second bachelor’s degree.
“I went into elementary education, got married, had my daughter, and graduated in 1957,” she remembers. “And that was a good thing for my family, since I lost my husband to cancer when our youngest was two.”
Before Leonard faced that terrible loss, she had become such a good teacher and mentor to younger teachers that she’d been recruited back to the U to teach while earning her master’s degree in educational psychology. She became a school counselor and was soon drafted into positions as an assistant principal at Olson Junior High and then as vice principal at Edison High School. Working full time, Leonard finished raising her family and sent all of them to college.
It was in her fifties that Leonard got her law degree in the evening program at William Mitchell College of Law. She fulfilled a dream by earning her pilot’s license. Then she returned to her small-town roots. Leonard and her brother pooled their resources to buy a farm, and she moved up the river to Sherburne County.
But schools had not finished with Rachel Leonard. When she opened a solo law practice and joined the chamber of commerce, she introduced the idea of businesses “adopting” a class and keeping in touch with students to encourage them on the path to graduation.
It was the need to build a new local school that first persuaded Leonard to run for public office. With experience as a teacher, school counselor, vice principal, and assistant to a superintendent, she won a school board seat in time to support a referendum for a new junior high school in Elk River in a 4–3 board vote.
“Public education is so important,” says Leonard. “Without our public schools, we would not be a democracy.”
Story by Gayla Marty | Photos by Dawn Villella | Fall 2016