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What I’ve Learned: The Rev. Jackie Leonard ' 71

Jackie LeonardWhat I’ve learned is that kindness is the cardinal virtue and life is endlessly diverting. The second point I learned a long time ago. The first I learned after I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When I run into a kind stranger, it is a gift. Somewhere kindness is wrapped up in philanthropy and giving back. Giving where it’s needed is the best feeling, and even better when you can do it anonymously.
It’s important to give back to your community however you identify it. We are all parts of more than one community. Don’t be afraid to give—of yourself, your time, your talent, your purse. Every gift counts. It doesn’t have to be a check. It can be volunteering or giving someone a cup of cool water. I hope our students leave this campus broadly educated with a sense of connection to and a willingness to give back to and support the University.

After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1971 with a bachelor’s in theatre, I moved to San Francisco to attend graduate school at San Francisco State and studied more theatre. I tired of being a poor student and accepted an opportunity to go through executive management training at the Emporium department store. I returned to Reno in 1977 to be closer to my family and went to work in middle management for Mervyn’s. On Nov. 1 that year, my brother Guy ’77 (philosophy) was killed by a drunk driver and everything changed.


I began to evaluate what I was doing with my life. I considered going back to school, either to pursue a business degree or a certificate in education. The loss of my brother reconnected me with St. John’s Presbyterian Church. I began teaching Sunday school and worshipping regularly. Gradually, a series of “holy nudges” led me to consider going to seminary. Five years later I began studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary in September 1984, graduating in 1988 with a Master in Divinity. In November 1984, my father, Paul Leonard ’36 (journalism), was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In spite of it being one of the most difficult times of my life because my dad was ill and my mother, Gwen Leonard ’37 (history), was caring for him by herself, my seminary education was an extraordinary experience. We were a close-knit community, and we lived in an idealized, almost utopian Christian environment. I met some remarkable people who to this day are good friends and colleagues. I now serve on the seminary’s Board of Trustees and am on their presidential search committee.


I’ve had the remarkable good fortune of having everything that’s happened to me in my life prepare me for the moment I’m in. If Guy hadn’t died, I might not have gone to seminary when I did, served in the parish, worked in disaster recovery, and become a police chaplain.


I’ve done disaster recovery work for Church World Service Emergency Response and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. My most fulfilling ministry was the 10 years I spent as a police chaplain serving the Reno Police Department, Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, and the Nevada Highway Patrol. Their needs were focused around trauma and death. I worked with officers and people in the community. That ministry gave me a tremendous respect, appreciation and affection for law enforcement.
The next important stage in my life was living with multiple sclerosis (MS). I was diagnosed in 2002. MS is manageable today and you can lead a normal life once you adapt to the changes the disease makes. One of the issues with MS is that, when you wake up in the morning, you don’t know which body part is not going to work quite right; I have had to learn to listen to what my body can and cannot do. Last spring I had a total joint replacement of my right shoulder. My close friend Bev Allen and my primary caregiver, Amy Collins, took care of me. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by a large circle of kind friends. When you are incapacitated in any way and people offer you their arms or open the door that you’re struggling with, it’s an act of kindness; and in my case it is so appreciated. When I’m shopping and a sales clerk offers to carry my things to the car, I always make sure I thank him or her for the kindness.


Giving anonymously gives me great joy. My mom didn’t want her name on buildings. I don’t either, although I am tickled that in March the Student Life Center at Great Basin College will re-open as the Paul and Gwen Leonard Student Life Center. I am glad that our journalism scholarships carry my parents’ names (Paul A. and Gwen F. Leonard Memorial Scholarships) and the journalism chair carries my dad’s name (Paul A. Leonard Chair for Ethics and Writing in Journalism). It’s been a pleasure to start scholarship funds in the theatre and music departments (Jim Bernardi and Bob Dillard Theatre Scholarships; Leonard Family Music Scholarships). I give to other organizations, including my seminary.


So what have I learned? Regardless of when your formal education ends, learning should never stop. I find that students and teachers need to be learners. Good teachers always learn from their students. I think it’s important to know a little bit about a lot of things. I am always in favor of a good liberal arts education. I received a fine education at Nevada, and I would like to personally acknowledge four professors—the late Dr. David Hettich (English), the late Dr. William Miller (theatre), Bob Dillard (theatre), and Anne Howard (English)—as being some of the finest teachers I’ve ever had.


The road of life is bumpy and living a life grounded in faith gets you through it. When I speak of faith, I speak of it in an all-inclusive way. I tell young couples I counsel before marriage to find a faith group. They are going to need that community to stand with them and pray for them if and when trouble comes. My parents made a conscious choice to rear Guy and me as Christians in the Presbyterian tradition, and I am deeply grateful for their decision.


When I was interviewing for church positions as a senior in seminary, one church asked what life motto I would have printed on a T-shirt. I came up with “Life is endlessly diverting.” I have found it to be true ever since.


From a conversation with Kristin Burgarello, director of development for the Reynolds School of Journalism, and Crystal Parrish, director of foundation operations. The Rev. Jackie Leonard graduated from Nevada in 1971 with a degree in speech communication and theatre. She has served as a minister at St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Reno for nearly 15 years. She and her family have supported numerous colleges and programs on campus through scholarships in English, journalism, history, philosophy, physics, music, and theatre, and an endowed chair in journalism. She resides with her three cats Sophie, Lucy, and Sadie.

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