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For Mike Leonard, a new life begins, post-'Today' show

Rick Kogan

Sidewalks

8:17 AM PST, January 11, 2013

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Like a lot of people in this battered economy, Mike Leonard is out of work. But the decision was his and his alone, and it says a great deal about the sort of person he is that he walked away from what most anyone would think is a dream job.

For 32 years, Leonard was a television star, a "Today" show fixture of such distinctive talent that he was given virtually free rein to tell stories not about the celebrities and oddities that occupy so much of modern media, but about so-called ordinary people.

You saw the end if you were watching the "Today" show Dec. 13, when Leonard filed his last report and sat with the show's hosts, who bid him a gracious farewell.

This is what co-host Matt Lauer said: "Your stories are a microcosm of you. They all have incredible heart; they're told with kindness, and hope, and modesty. They are understated and yet so powerful, and that is you in a nutshell."

A more understated media star this area has never seen. He was born in Paterson, N.J., in 1947, raised in Glencoe and has lived with his wife and raised four children (Matt, Megan, Kerry and Brendan) in Winnetka. Leonard has remained purposefully and admirably low-profile.

"Some people say, 'I've never seen you; I've never even heard of you.' And that's fine," says Leonard. "I never hang out with the TV types. I live in a satellite world because it's better for me and for my family that way."

Perhaps one of the reasons is that he came into television not through any conventional route. He never aspired to stardom. His is one of those rare talent-will-out tales.

"I was a lousy student, a shy kid," he says. "I don't think I ever raised my hand in high school, and I started to think, 'What am I ever going to do with my life?' My dad had blue-collar roots, and he honored that life. I thought that life would be fine for me and would have been fine with (my parents)."

Then he went one night to Ravinia — sneaking in by climbing over the fence — and saw Bob Dylan. "And that changed everything," Leonard says. "His lyrics touched me, and it was the first time I ever valued words. I decided at the time that I would be a creative person. I just didn't know how."

For many years, his only creative outlet was making home movies as he got married and started having kids, while working construction and some other "mindless jobs."

"I have always felt that life moves too quickly," he says. "That camera was my way of slowing it down. I would focus on the little moments: my daughter running to a school bus, my son reading in a chair."

He and his family were living in Phoenix when, on the suggestion of a friend, he took his home movies to local TV stations.

"I got rejected by all the stations until this guy at PBS took pity on me and paid me out of petty cash to do some stories," he says.

Three months later he was hired as a sportscaster at another station, and not long after that he was spotted by a "Today" show producer and offered a network job — and that was that for more than three decades.

"I wanted to leave while I still loved the job," he says.

His last television feature essay was about his wife, Cathy, a tender few minutes in which he said it was she who has inspired him "to see the beauty in our everyday existence."

A couple of weeks later, he said, "Whenever I meet people and Cathy is there, they will always say to her, 'You must be a saint.'"

He has been in love with her for a very long time and has also formed close relationships with many of the people he has met through his television work.

"In a lot of cases, I have become lifelong friends with many of these people," he says. "We share things during the interview process. When you talk, information comes out, feelings come out."

He mentions a recent story about a 63-year-old Chicago mailman named James Hundley.

"He was in the middle of some real rough stuff in Mississippi during the civil rights movement," Leonard says. "And he never really talked much about it until we got together. Now we talk all the time. We have formed a real friendship."

Among his most memorable and meaningful stories was a three-month-long trip in a rented RV that took his family and elderly parents on what he described as "one last lap around the country."

This manifested itself in a four-part series for "Today" and a book, "The Ride of Our Lives: Roadside Lessons of an American Family," a charming, funny and not-so-funny tale.

Leonard remains part of a family-run video production company, Picture Show Films. He is not sure he is up to another big TV project, such as 2011's "Catholicism," a 10-part documentary about the history of the Catholic faith. He has five active grandchildren and still plays competitive ice hockey (his family bought him a helmet for his 65th birthday).

Asked what he plans to do now, he became reflective.

"Every year I would do a story about where the Rockefeller Center Christmas trees came from," he says. "It's a hard story: Just a tree in a yard. This year it was about a Hungarian refugee. He came here in 1956 when he was 20. No money, didn't know a soul. He eventually had a gas station in New Jersey and a house on a little bit of land.

"That's where the tree came from, and I said to him, 'Now your tree is the most famous tree in the world. What do you want people to know about you?'

"He started to tear up, and he said, 'I just came here, and I got a piece of the American dream,' and I realized that the reason he was crying was that — through all those years changing tires, pumping gas — no one had ever asked him that question before."

Leonard paused for a moment and then said, "Everybody has a story," getting to the very essence of what has made him a unique and compelling presence on television.

Rick Kogan hosts "The Afternoon Shift" 2-4 p.m. on WBEZ-91.5 FM. Among this week's guests will be the Tribune's Ernest Wilkins and musicians Jamie O'Reilly and Michael Smith.

rkogan@tribune.com