George Leader
George Leader

Former Democratic Gov. George Michael Leader died Thursday, having created a legacy of humanitarianism, progressive statesmanship and entrepreneurial advancement over a long life that started on a York Township chicken farm.

The 95-year-old Leader had been ill recently and died peacefully with two of his grandchildren at his side at his home in Hershey, in a retirement community he founded with his late wife.

Leader was voted into Pennsylvania's highest office at age 36, serving as governor from 1955 to 1959 - at a time when the state's constitution limited governors to a single four-year term.

He was the second-youngest governor elected in the state and the only Yorker to ever hold the office. His victory in the heavily Republican state was feat enough to land him on the cover of Time magazine the week after the election.

Leader's tenure was later credited with validating the Democrats of his day, his administration framing some of the fundamental changes of thought that continue to govern the state's policy on human welfare.


Advertisement

His accomplishments included reform of the state's care of mentally ill people, transforming mental hospitals from warehouses to treatment centers and requiring schools to develop programs for children with mental or physical disabilities.

Leader led efforts to create new jobs and promote higher standards for nursing facilities, with his administration establishing nursing home standards and inspections and launching the state Office of Aging.

Well-known family: Leader was one of a series of successful members of a well-known and perhaps appropriately named York County family, with the Leaders having left their influence - and their name - in many places.

George Leader's father, Guy Leader, was his son's predecessor in the 28th Senate District of Pennsylvania.

He was a successful poultry farmer on land that sits behind a McDonald's at the Leader Heights Exit on Interstate 83, in a portion of York Township named after the family that settled there.

The North George Street bridge over the Codorus Creek bears the former governor's name, and George Leader's brother Henry Leader is a founder of prominent York County law firm Stock and Leader.

New direction: The former governor steered his career in a new direction after an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate when his term as governor ended.

In 1962, Leader and wife Mary Jane Strickler Leader, who died in 2011 at the age of 92, founded Leader Healthcare Organization. By 1981, the company they later sold was the largest provider of skilled nursing in the state.

They started a new company, Country Meadows Retirement Communities, in 1985 and developed numerous assisted living and senior communities in Pennsylvania and northern Maryland over the next two decades.

He served as chairman, president and CEO of a third company, Providence Place, at the time of his death.

Those who knew the former governor best said he never "really" ever retired.

Leader's oldest son, Michael Leader, is chairman and CEO of Country Meadows and worked side-by-side with his father for 40 years.

"I'm not sure what it's going to be like without him," said Michael Leader, 68, also of Hershey. "I think part of his legacy and what I've learned from him is, if you can help it, don't retire. Keep purpose in your life."

Though becoming visibly weaker over the past six months, George Leader continued to safely drive his car and report to the office for work until about two weeks ago, his son said.

"He was always passionate about whatever he was doing," Michael Leader said. "When he was governor, he was totally involved, totally committed and working with all of his energy and vision to change things. ... Even though he had a Republican legislature for at least two years, he got so much accomplished."

His success was driven by the strong professionals, both Democratic and Republican, he hired to help him, and his brother Henry Leader, who served as his legislative secretary, Michael Leader said.

George Leader had a strong desire to improve the well-being of common citizens, and some of his policies arose from his own sensibilities and experiences, the son said.

"We had a brother who was blind from birth, and there was no law to make the schools educate handicapped children," Michael Leader said. "It was really up to the school districts and the counties."

Leader said his father's life was also informed by a healthy sense of optimism, a refusal to "mope" when things didn't do his way.

"He didn't always have success," Michael Leader said. "He had some disappointments in life, but that never stopped him. He pulled himself right back up and got back to work."

- Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.