On Thursday, March 2, Rev. Jeffrey Brown is leading a community conversation on civility for Transform Rockford at Crusader Community Health.
How do we as a community deal with each other, with all our differences, in a civil manner in the social media era?
It’s the kind of discussion that Brian Leaf would have loved. Really, Brian loved all kind of conversation. He was the most civil person I ever met.
Brian was a Register Star business writer, off and on, for more than 15 years. I spent 17 years there, 12 writing in business. I did some good work, but I always admitted that if you did any kind of research on a business issue or company, eventually you would find that Brian did the definitive piece on the subject.
In Brian’s final couple of years at the Register Star, he served as union chief, fighting the good fight to keep real journalism alive in the Internet era. Eventually, a better opportunity came along and he was working as public information officer for a school district in Beloit, Wisconsin.
On February 22, he was doing one of several things he loved, heading up his early morning spin class at the YMCA of Rock River Valley. He’d handpicked all the music. I’m sure he was needling the students who liked to be needled and pushing the ones who needed to be pushed. Then his heart suddenly just gave out. He was dead instantly. He was just 57.
I was called a couple of hours later. I sat next to Brian for the last five years of my time at the Register Star. It is impossible for me to accurately describe how much fun he was to be around. I’ve always taught my two daughters that there are really two types of people in the world – ones who add energy to the room when they walk in and ones who suck the life out of the room. Brian always added energy to every occasion.
Brian loved to ask questions and he listened so he could absorb the story. The best reporters are storytellers and he could tell some good ones.
Personally, I feel like I lost one of my best friends. I am now the communications manager for Thinker Ventures, which is an excellent company on its way up. In between the Register Star and Thinker though, there were dark days. I spent several of those with Brian at his spin classes, usually laughing, sometimes arguing. Brian refused to add Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb” to his playlist. I’d argue that it’s called The Climb and we’re cycling, it’s a natural. He refused to lower his standards. He even did a whole spin class of songs for me with the word Climb in the title without including Cyrus. No matter what the morning subject of conversation was though, I always left thinking that he believed more in me than I do in myself.
On the day he died, if there was solace, it was in reading the Facebook feed of many of the people he touched over the years. I realized I was just one of hundreds of Brian’s best friends. He had that unique ability to make you feel like you were one of the most important people in his life.
Brian’s memorial service was Sunday and more than 500 filled his Episcopalian church. His wife, Mary, and his fantastic kids, Sally and Roy, are less than a week into learning how to live life without him. The Register Star’s Isaac Guerrero wrote a touching feature obit that was far too short because there really is never enough space to properly say goodbye to someone.
Reality Check is meant to be a way to trace the progress of Rockford as the various programs designed to help the area improve are rolled out. Civility is an interesting discussion because if I could wave a magic wand and magically conjure up one thing it would be to infuse a little of Brian’s spirit into all of us.
When we sat next to each other, we had a running joking competition over who knew more people. I would admit that downtown Rockford was Brian’s domain. He’d listened to music or bought everyone a beer in about a 12-block radius. I’d tell him he needed to get out to the burbs, Loves and Machesney Park, my territory, then we’d be even. He’d smile and say he’s good. He’s winning. Truth be told, if the competition was who was liked by more then he won hands down. The sheer number of people from all walks of life who filled that church Sunday were a testament to his ability to connect with anyone. I never met a single person with an unkind word to say about him. He embodied the best of Rockford. If this city ever lives up to his example, it’ll be the place to live in the entire world.
Rest in peace Brian.