HERSHEY – All of former Pennsylvania Gov. George Leader’s living predecessors were among the nearly 500 mourners at his funeral Thursday as friends and family members remembered him as an innovative, energetic and compassionate leader.
Gov. Tom Corbett and former governors Ed Rendell, Mark Schweiker, Tom Ridge and Dick Thornburgh were seated together at the front of Derry Presbyterian Church in Hershey.
Leader, a Democrat who was 95 when he died May 9 following a brief illness, served as governor from 1955 to 1959. He was the state’s second-youngest chief executive, sworn into office at age 37.
As governor, Leader fought to rid the state government of political patronage and make special education a requirement in Pennsylvania schools. After serving the maximum one term allowed by law at the time and making an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate, he remained involved in politics and advocated for prison reform while building a successful business career.
His three children delivered separate eulogies to their father during a 90-minute service that opened with the singing of “We Shall Overcome” and concluded with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Leader’s daughter, Jane Leader Janeczek, said she discovered in her father’s files an outline for his funeral service he had written in 2001 with the annotation, “I hope it will not be used for another 10 or 15 years because I’m feeling wonderful today.”
The Rev. Richard Houtz, the church’s pastor, told a story to illustrate Leader’s willingness to help people in need.
Houtz said Leader called him five years ago about a used van that the church was planning to trade in for a new one. Leader offered to buy and repair the old van at his own expense so he could ship it to Ghana to provide transportation to school for children in an orphanage he was supporting there.
“Who could say no to that vision and commitment to serve poor children in a distant land? Who could ask a single penny for that old van? Not us,” he said. “And so Derry Presbyterian Church was invited and caught up and blessed in reaching out to serve some children in need in a place we might never have thought of, had it not been for the commitment and the passion of George Leader.”
David Leader, the youngest son, humorously contrasted his father’s post-politics success in the field of nursing homes and assisted-living centers with his ideas for other businesses that included turning the family’s York County farm into a wild-animal park or opening a restaurant that served eggs exclusively.
“Dad believed in challenging the status quo at every turn,” he said. “He had lots of brilliant ideas and, in fact, he called all of his ideas brilliant ideas for his whole life.”