Just as the B.C. Lions were fighting to keep their lead during the Nov. 28 Grey Cup, Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard was pulled away from his television to attend a community dinner. He managed to keep following the game on his iPhone discretely placed just below the tabletop.
Such are the consequences of holding a position that doesn’t ever allow for a day off. Behind the public image, Leonard is a guy who watches sports, takes his kids to Shawnigan Lake and, at 57 years old, has recently welcomed both the birth of his grandchildren as well as a new son of his own.
“You’re just never off duty,” Leonard said. “You need to know that. If you’re in the mall or the coffee shop or the grocery store that’s just the way it works.”
Last month, marked a quarter of a century at Saanich municipal hall for Leonard, first elected to council in 1986.
“I’ve seen him grow to enjoy that role more,” said Coun. Susan Brice, also a longtime friend of Leonard’s. “In some respects he was shy when he was younger. Over the years that shyness has gone and he gets right into it now, out there in the public. He remains very appropriate, but I think he genuinely enjoys it.”
His adult children, Daniel and Michelle (with ex-wife Elaine Leonard, a longtime Greater Victoria school trustee), are both married with their own families and prefer to stay out of the public spotlight.
However, Leonard’s 23-month-old son Atticus doesn’t have much of a say about appearing in Leonard’s Facebook photos or in the occasional news stories. Still, the mayor does try to keep his home life private. His wife and the mother of Atticus is former Saanich councillor Jackie Leonard (whose surname was Ngai before marrying the mayor). The family also includes Leonard’s 11-year-old stepson Magnus.
“You can’t pick and choose once you go too personal,” Leonard said. “Everybody in their personal life has ups and downs, and if you overplay the ups, you have to expose the downs.”
When he is having downs, Leonard will often sip a coffee at Saanich Commonwealth Place, which he calls a victory achieved while working on the Capital Regional District board.
He points to a photo of the pool on his office wall, calling it a “happy ending.” The walls are covered in snapshots of happy endings.
There’s a photo with Brice marking the start of the region’s blue box recycling program and another with his friend and Saanich North MLA Murray Coell.
Coell and Leonard first worked together in Grade 10 at Mount View secondary school. As students they advocated for wheelchair-friendly sidewalks and hosted school dances. Coell, sporting an impressive Afro at the time, and his rock band provided the entertainment.
“We had a good group of friends,” said Coell, who also noted Leonard’s ability to poke fun at himself. “A testament to Frank is that he still sees the friends we had in high school on a weekly or monthly basis and I count myself lucky to be one of them.”
Leonard was a diligent student and hard-worker, said his father Vern Leonard, who employed his son at the family tire shop throughout his high school and university days.
“Whatever he said he would do, he would get done on time,” he said. “Even as a kid he did a first class job – even as a youngster.”
Like his connection to old friends, Leonard has remained close with his parents, including mother Clara Leonard, with whom he will spend this Christmas.
Leonard’s parents also contributed to his last election campaign, Vern Leonard jokes, by babysitting Atticus. And they weren’t surprised their son will remain in office for another term.
“He’s mentally alert, considerate, concerned with other people and always willing to give a hand,” Vern Leonard said. “He’s good at putting up my Christmas tree lights.”
Though he’s been mayor since 1996, Leonard sees himself first and foremost as a businessman and a member of the private sector. A a former tire shop operator and currently a part-time sessional instructor at the University of Victoria, he says he was ready to go back into business had he not won the Nov. 19 municipal election against challenger David Cubberley.
“Former politicians should fade away,” he said, about the role he sees for himself after his life in public office ends. “I wouldn’t be coming back to council chambers giving advice. When you’re done you’re done.”
Until then, the dad who never gets a day off will continue to balance a full family life with his duties as mayor.
“Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get an email with a picture of (his) kids or some kind of connection to his family,” Brice said. “He is delightfully over the top being a dad at this stage of his life and he’s really quite endearing.”
Leonard is the first to admit that things have changed in the 32 years since he had his first son.
“It seems to take longer to get off the floor when I’m playing with (Atticus). I’m older. I’ve aged,” he said, later admitting. “I like to feel alive and the interaction of those I love and care about – it’s pretty mushy, but it’s true. I am grateful.”