Former Pa. Gov. George Leader recalled as reformer, role model

    Former Pennsylvania Gov. George Leader is being remembered for overhauling the state’s mental health system, modernizing state government and appointing the state’s first black cabinet officer.

    Leader died Thursday at the age of 95.

    He grew up on his dad’s poultry farm. But the man was no chicken, as former Gov. Ed Rendell remembers.

    “Always stood for the things he believed in — wasn’t afraid of anything,” Rendell recalled.

    The York County native, a Democrat, was the commonwealth’s second-youngest governor at 37 years old when he took office in 1955.

    As governor he was known for largely eradicating the spoils system and professionalizing thousands of state civil service jobs.

    It wasn’t popular, which was perhaps what gave Leader some perspective when he encouraged Gov. Tom Corbett in the month after the new governor’s first budget, which made controversial cuts to education and public welfare.

    “And I said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to hurt you politically.’ I hate to say that as a Democrat to a Republican governor, but I think there are enough people in Pennsylvania that appreciate the fantastic job you did balancing that budget, some of them are going to vote for you,” Leader said in a 2011 interview.

    Leader was ‘aptly named’

    Corbett says Pennsylvania flags will remain at half-staff until sunset on the day of Leader’s burial. Corbett says Leader defied political labels and notes that he was among the first of the state’s leaders to warn against budget deficits.

    “He became a friend during my tenure as governor,” Corbett said. “We got talking very early on in the first year of my term and I looked to him as somebody who I could talk to about the role of governor.”

    Public officials have called Leader “aptly named.”

    Most recently, he participated in the Corbett administration’s efforts to overhaul the state prison system and co-signed a mid-March letter to state lawmakers urging a change to the way some state judges are selected.

    His single term as governor — they were limited to one back then — was preceded by four years in the state Senate.

    In central Pennsylvania, he was also known for his expansive business running senior living facilities.

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