Born a Leader for Pennsylvania

Interview is a series of discussions with renowned Pennsylvanians - artists, athletes, authors, historians, musicians, politicians, scholars, television celebrities and others - that have appeared occasionally as features in Pennsylvania Heritage.

The essence of life is unconditional, non-judgmental love,” explains George Michael Leader when asked to sum-up his philosophy. He writes poetry, models and advocates wellness, leads community humanitarian projects, reads extensively, and oversees a family corpora­tion he founded that includes nursing facili­ties and retirement communities. In his ninth decade he is, as he has always been, deeply spiritual, usually passionate, some­times tranquil, yet consistently confident. As governor of Pennsylvania from 1955 to 1959, George M. Leader was, as in his life generally, unconventional. Many embraced him as a refreshing antidote to “politics-as­-usual” in the state capital; others called him “that stubborn young governor.”

George M. Leader is diverse, complex, and maverick-like in talents, skills, and inter­ests, but unpretentious in values. He was born the third of seven children on January 17, 1918, to Guy A. and Beulah (Boyer) Leader. Like his Pennsylvania German family that had farmed in York County for sever­al generations, George grew up on his par­ent’s poultry farm. He attended a one room schoolhouse and then York High School. Devout Lutherans, church attendance and worship were central to the family, as were long hours on the farmstead. George went to Gettysburg College and then to the University of Pennsylvania to study philosophy, economics, and political science. Graduating in 1939, he wanted to be a teacher, but put his plans on hold so that he and his new bride, Mary Jane Strick­ler, could attend graduate school at Penn.

During World War II, Leader became a Navy ensign on the air­craft carrier U.S.S. Randolph. When the war drew to a close he returned to York, pur­chased Willow Brook Farm, and launched a political career as secretary and, later, chair of the York County Democratic Committee. At the time his father was a state senator representing the 28th District. In 1950. he ran for and won his father’s seat when the elder Leader decided to step down. Two years later he unsuccessfully ran for state treasurer. Shortly afterward he launched a bid for the 1954 gubernatorial contest. On learning of Leader’s candidacy, Philadelphia Mayor and fellow Democrat Joseph S. Clark (1901-1990) quipped, “I’m sorry to hear it. George Leader is a nice fellow. I hate to see him be the sacrificial lamb.”

Clark knew that, historically, it was quite unusual for candidates from the party of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to succeed in a gubernatorial race in the Key­stone State. With the exception of George H. Earle (1935-1939), no Democrat had claimed the office in the twentieth century. But Leader is not one to be underestimat­ed, nor is he one to be reticent about issues in which he believes. He campaigned vigorously and was among pioneering candi­dates who utilized media advertising and professional pollsters. With agrarian and labor support, he defeated opponent Lloyd H. Wood (1896-1964), who had served as lieutenant gover­nor under Republican Gov­ernor John S. Fine (1893-1978), by two hundred and eighty thousand votes. At thirty-six years old, Leader became the second youngest person ever elected to the post. (Robert E. Pattison, governor for two non­consecutive terms, from 1883 to 1887 and from 1891 to 1895, was thirty-three years old when he assumed his first term.)

Governor Leader’s initiatives included reforming the state hospital system to address overcrowding and to replace what he called “warehousing” with treatment for the mentally ill. Providing state support for the education of children with disabilities was also a priority. As an advocate of the science of public administration, Leader professionalized the state bureaucracy by reducing patronage, placing jobs under civil service, and recruiting professionals for skilled positions. In an era of sometimes double-digit unemployment, his administra­tion put into place a novel economic devel­opment program. The Pennsylvania Indus­trial Development Authority (PIDA) provided low interest state loans to private enterpris­es as an incentive to locate in economically distressed communities. A fixture of Com­monwealth’s economic development policy to the present day, in its first thirty months PIDA created seventy-one new or expand­ed business facilities and twelve thousand new jobs. PIDA, in part, became a model for federal economic development policy in Appalachia that would culminate in the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission in 1965.

Reflecting the social and political milieu of the times, while Governor George Wal­lace of Alabama stood in front of the state university’s doors to stop blacks from enrolling, Leader signed legislation creat­ing the Fair Employment Practices Coun­cil to police employment discrimination. In the era of Sputnik and the Cold War, his administration expanded aid to school districts and to the fourteen state-owned colleges that would ulti­mately become the State System of Higher Education. Moreover, when Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for polio at the University of Pittsburgh, the Leader administration made it a priority to immunize Pennsylvania’s children and presented Salk with an achievement commendation. And, for the first time, the Commonwealth enacted reg­ulations to deal with the discharge of radioactive water from nuclear reactors.

Inheriting an insolvent state budget, Governor Leader proposed a levy on income and investment returns. His oppo­nents countered with a proposal to raise the sales tax. The disagreement led to one of longest stalemates between a governor and the state legislature in the Commonwealth’s history and resulted in his personally unnerving concession to raise the sales tax from one percent to three percent. Yet difficult decisions like taxes were eclipsed by Leader’s 1958 opening of the Department of labor and Industry’s Vocational Rehabili­tation Center in Johnstown, Cambria Coun­ty. Later known as the Hiram G. Andrews Center, it was the only facility of its kind in the nation to provide rehabilitation and job training to people with disabilities. With the guidance of Secretary of Forests and Waters Maurice K. “Doc” Goddard, the governor set out to estab­lish a world-class state park system so that more of these recreational facilities would be within easy dis­tance of each Pennsylvanian. Other reforms included overhauling the state’s antiquated accounting system, pro­viding tax relief to farmers, and enacting laws requiring the reclamation of strip mines that scarred the Commonwealth’s landscape.

In 1958, Leader waged and lost a campaign for the U.S. Senate against the 6th District Congressman Hugh Scott (1900-1994). Disheart­ened by the defeat and con­sumed by other pursuits, including the founding of Leader Nursing Homes, Inc., he bowed out of public ser­vice. However, he remained active in public affairs and served as a delegate to
Democratic National Conventions, supported various candidates and positions on political issues, and maintained associations with prominent public figures.

Today, George Leader is a co-owner of Country Meadows and Providence Place Retirement Communities with ten locations in Pennsylvania. He spearheads numerous community initiatives and recently finished a book of inspirational poetry. On occasion he lectures and speaks pub­licly on issues ranging from wellness to public education. He enjoys spending time with his wife, Mary Jane, sons Michael, Frederick, and David, daughter Jane Ellen, and eleven grand­children.

Since 1995 Gover­nor Leader has gra­ciously granted three interviews, the most recent of which was conducted in his office in Hershey in June 2001. What follows are excerpts from these conversations, snap­shots from the life of this extraordinary Pennsylvanian, this natural born Leader.


Where were you born and raised?

I was born on a six-acre poultry farm [in York County] on January 17, 1918. I was one of seven children. I was the third. In the country in those days many families were large. A lot of our neighbors had ten or twelve children. It was a community of truck farmers – vegetable farmers. They went to York city markets one or two days a week to sell their goods. My father had been a country schoolteacher but he had to take a break because of a health problem. So he bought an incubator and started hatching baby chicks. Soon he established a breeding operation. Back in those days they sold for about ten cents apiece. By the time I was seven years old I was helping to pack eggs. By the time I was ten I was cleaning chicken houses. When I wasn’t working for my father I was permitted to go and work for our neighbors where we picked straw­berries and raspberries and things like that for two cents a box. The farmer, on the other hand, took them and sold them for ten cents a box. But two cents was a fairly liberal payment for labor.

When I was twelve I organized a base­ball team. We played on Sundays. My mother had very serious reservations about that because we were brought up in a very religious home – read the Bible every day. But my father said, “let them play.” I selected the manager, put the play­ers together, and we played on school ground where I went to grade school. I
finished eight grades in seven years in a country [one-room] school. I was sixteen when I finished high school.

You went to college to become a teacher. Why did you want to teach?

There was a strong tradition of teaching in our family. My father had been a teacher. My oldest sister had gone to West Chester [State Teacher’s College] to become a teacher. My mother’s only brother was a teacher. And my grandfather Leader was superintendent of a Sunday school in the lower end of the county.

What were York County politics like in the 1940s?

There was a strong component in the Democratic Party that was sort of for sale. George Love was a lawyer [and county chairman] and a good friend of Sam Lewis, the [county] Republican leader. When Sam needed to get somebody elected to suit his purposes, Love would go out and buy up half a dozen Democratic leaders and elect the person Sam Lewis wanted. [When I came back from the war] I was elected county chairman at about twenty-eight years old. I put on a strong drive for regis­tration and put the party together so that it couldn’t be splintered anymore. The first election that I chaired we won every open county and city seat except for one. Then, in 1950, I stepped aside [as chairman] to run for state senate and was elected.

Interestingly, it was a time in our history when most of us liberals were called com­munists. [There were some who said] what a dangerous communist 1 was! Fortunately, though, it didn’t stick I guess people fig­ured that an ordinary chicken farmer prob­ably wouldn’t be a very effective commu­nist! But for a long time we, in the Democratic Party, had the curse of the extreme left. You know, Bill Scranton [former Republi­can Pennsylvania Governor William W. Scranton] and I are good friends. Philo­sophically I don’t think we’re five degrees apart in terms of where we stand on most issues. He’s a moderate Republican and I’m a moderate Democrat [see “The Gentle­man from Pennsylvania: An Interview with William W. Scranton” by Michael J. O’Mal­ley ill, Winter 2001]. And what we need in America is moderation because we can’t afford to go to the extreme right or left.

How did you find the state political envi­ronment in the early 1950s?

Pennsylvania had been under the influ­ence of the Grand Old Party at least since the Civil War. In 1952, Dick [Richardson K.] Dilworth (1950 Democratic gubernatorial candidate] called me and said “George, I’d like you to run for state treasurer.” I said, “Dick, I just can’t.” I used my GI Bill of Rights to borrow twenty-five thousand dol­lars to buy a poultry farm and hatchery. It was a young business. I just couldn’t get away. But, they talked me into running. My wife, Mary Jane, lay on the bed sobbing for about half a day! I ran. It was an Eisenhow­er year. Genevieve [Blatt] ran for state audi­tor general. We traveled and campaigned together. Eisenhower carried the state by about six hundred thousand votes. Genevieve lost by about one hundred and twenty thousand. I lost by a little more. But, there was a strong message there. The message was that people were voting for candidates and not along party lines. It was an indication that the opposition was more vulnerable than we had originally thought.

In 1954, you secured the nomination for the governor’s race.

I’m a pretty positive person and 1 had a deep-down feeling that I would win. If you don’t have that, it’s pretty hard to convey it to others. I campaigned almost every day for eight months. That’s a hard schedule; a lot of wear and tear. By the end of the sum­mer I had really established myself. We had about one and a half million dollars [in campaign funds]. We spent two hundred and fifty thousand dollars on television advertising – which wouldn’t last you one week today! And we had first-class pollsters. And we had a good program to pro­pose. We did a poll on issues. [Voters were] against the sales tax and for industrial development. Also, Pennsylvania had a lot of strong political bosses in the state. They liked the system the way it was because state patronage was a great thing. There was a sentiment [among the voters] of “throw the rascals out.” The time had come for us to win.

One of your goals was to professionalize state government, making it more respon­sive to people’s needs. You were criticized for that, even in your own party.

There were sixty-some thousand state fobs in those days and eighty to eighty-five percent were patronage. We put about thir­teen thousand under civil service. That was a good start! I remember one time we ten to twenty workers in Philadelphia. They weren’t coming to work but were drawing a paycheck. Now some of that happened in previous administrations but I was determined that it would not happen to me. I was pretty ruthless about that. When it came to patronage jobs I was not going to put patronage people in jobs that they weren’t qualified to do. We put into place a personnel administrator and a job classification system and you had to meet the qualifications to do the job or you didn’t get it. There were quite a few political people who were upset with it but that was fine by me.

What do you recall about your disagree­ment with the general assembly over taxes and the state budget?

The opposition fought my classified income tax proposal. It would have taxed upper incomes and investment returns at a higher rate than wage earners. A few other states already had income tax systems like the one I proposed. It was political. They [the opposition] knew that if we solved the fiscal problems of the state then my party would be in a strong position to remain in power for a while. They did their best to embarrass me on the tax issue and they suc­ceeded. I had to sign the sales tax increase to solve the state’s budget problem.

You enacted PIDA, a landmark program. Why was this important to you?

My administration had to decide what the state could do to bring in indus­try. Out-migration was a problem in some areas. So was high unemployment. One of the things we did was to hold public hear­ings across the state. Now some areas already had their own plans for indus­trial development, espe­cially in the coal regions. They wanted more above ground jobs because they had been dependent on min­ing for too long.

You know, there is something about the extraction industries, like coal mining, that somehow exploitation seems to be the only word that applies. They don’t seem to care about the hospitals or the churches or the community buildings or the infrastructure unless is affects them! Now the above­-ground industries have a different corporate culture. Not all of them are good or charita­ble but many of them want to be a constructive part of the community. So we held hearings in Altoona, Wilkes-Barre, Erie, and elsewhere on what the state could do to attract jobs and industry. And out of those hearings came PIDA. It was designed to attract entre­preneurs to distressed areas. If the entrepre­neur came up with fifty-percent of the financing for a plant or business and the local community could provide the next twenty-percent, the state would provide thirty-percent at a low rate of interest. Later on it [PIDAJ was altered in some respects. In fact, the first bill my adminis­tration presented to the general assembly was going to provide one hundred percent state financing. Obviously, that didn’t get through. Well, when we finally got the program through the legislature it took off beautifully. Because we had a surplus of unemployed labor, there was no trouble getting help.

Why were you concerned about conditions in the state mental hospitals?

We had thirty-nine thousand people in our mental hospitals and the number was going up every year. We could hardly build them fast enough-like the prison system now. And, when people got admitted there was no treatment. We had entire mental hospitals with one psychiatrist on staff. It was just a place to hold people. There were a lot of people in there that we called senile. I never heard the word “Alzheimer’s” in the four years I was governor.

I visited every mental hospital and walked through every ward. We invited legislators to go along; most didn’t. There was no treatment. Patients just sat there. They had nothing to do. There were no magazines, no newspapers, no television, and no radio. They sat on wooden benches all day. It was ridiculous to be putting people away like we were. Any two doctors could sign and put a person away for the rest of their lives – didn’t even have to examine them! Anyone who stayed in a mental hospital for over three years was, on average, there for twenty-six years. It was outrageous.

But we turned it around. We put on a nationwide search for professionals and called it “Operation Opportunity.” We brought in psychologists and counselors. We reduced the population [by] setting up halfway houses. You couldn’t just dump people on the street. They wouldn’t know what to do. In many cases their families had abandoned them.

There is a photograph of you in a civil defense facility with a map and chart showing, hypothetically, that nuclear bombs had hit several cities. What was the impact of the Cold War in Pennsylvania?

It was at time when there was a lot of fear in this country. When I was governor, the Pennsylvania National Guard had very high regard and (was prepared to be] called up if it was needed quickly because of a [nuclear] war. Yet I hate to think of how many billions of dollars we spent on (fall­out] shelters and the like. When I think of the foolishness of trying to have a bomb shelter against the kind of attack that the Soviet Union would have been able to muster – it just goes to show how stupid we can be even in high places.

You were active in Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presi­dential campaign. What was your relationship with him?

I would say, without exaggeration, we were friends. [Prior to the 1956 campaign] he asked me and my wife to come to his farm in Springfield [Illinois] to have lunch with him. He said “the rea­son I wanted to see you is that I am think­ing of selecting Jim Finnegan to be my campaign chairman for fifty-six.” Jim was chairman of the party in Philadelphia and was Secretary of the Commonwealth. He had to take a leave of absence [to work with Stevenson], which I agreed to. Adlai kicked off his fifty-six campaign in Har­risburg at a dinner.

Adlai was a very sensitive person. He was so meticulous. He was a real intel­lectual perfectionist. It’s pretty hard to be comfortable in politics and be a perfectionist. I think, as president, the wear and tear on Adlai Steven­son would have been just awful.

What was your relationship with Genevieve Blatt [1913-1996), who served as Pennsylvania’s secretary of internal affairs, state court judge from 1972 to 1993, and candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1964?

Gen and I were very close for a long time. One of the reasons I ran [for state treasurer] in 1952 was because of the great respect I had for her integrity, her ability, and her dedication to the good things in the world. I admired her very much. She was a good and decent person.

The 1958 U.S. senatorial election marked your last political campaign. How did you react to losing and leaving public life?

I was playing out a hand that I held and did it to the best of my ability. My attitude was that I was going to do the best I could do to win. But, if I don’t it’s all right. It’s not the end of the world. If I was going to start over, it was a lot better to do so when I was in my early forties.

After you left office you thought of run­ning for lieutenant governor, but then went into Leader Nursing Homes and, later, Country Meadows.

I was thinking of running with Dick Dil­worth in 1962. Then I would have planned to run for governor again after the four years. That is what I really wanted to do. It was a long shot to do that, to be around that long. When I mentioned this to some of my close friends, they said, “George, have you lost your mind?” Yet, just because it was different doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have done it.

Then I got into mortgage banking. Frankly, though, I wanted to get into long­term [nursing] care but I couldn’t because I didn’t have the money. I was not a clever person about raising money. I took on a partner who was good at raising money. I bought him out after about three years and it became Leader Nursing Centers. It was 1963. We lost control of Leader in 1981 and started Country Meadows Retirement Communities in 1982. It has about three thousand beds [in ten locations] and about two thousand co-workers. It is a nice little company. I am also very busy with Providence Place [retirement communities]. We have three locations, Chambersburg, Pottsville, and Hazleton.

And aren’t you currently involved in sev­eral charitable endeavors?

Yes. They take considerable time. I have three major things going.

One, I am [working with] Harrisburg School District on a program we call “I am College or Career Bound.” We start with children in the sixth grade and stay with them grade after grade until they graduate. We encourage and mentor them. I have six African American ministers [working with] me. Harrisburg has lot of people who don’t have a high school education. When I start­ed this program sixty-one percent of the kids were in single parent homes. Forty­-five percent were on welfare. Many of the [graduatesl in Harrisburg are not qualified to take decent jobs.

The second program is to donate and wire eighty-five churches [in the Harris­burg area] with computers. We get com­puters from government surplus, colleges, law firms, and accounting firms. Then we train people in the churches to give kids thirteen weeks of instruction. Then we give them the machine. We try to give away one thousand a year. We are working with kids eight to sixteen years old. And, now we are starting with adults as well.

[The third program] is a prisoner-to-prisoner ministry. I started work­ing on this three years ago and we finished our first pilot program at Camp Hill Prison [State Correctional lnstitution, or SCI, at Camp Hill]. We are authorized now for six more [SCIs]. We train mentors [inmates] to reach the prison pop­ulation [to bring inmates to] the Lord Jesus Christ. The mentor gets a letter from the Secretary of Corrections and the head chap­lain saying that they are a mentor. I am working through Second Chance Ministries on this and providing the financing, energy, direction, and guidance.

Do you know we have thirty-seven thousand inmates [in SCIs]? They come out [released or paroled] with less than fifty dollars, with a suit of clothes. Over fifty per­cent have been abandoned by their families. Within three years all but about twelve per­cent of them are back in prison again. If you put a man out there and the only place he can go is sleeping under a bridge, getting his food out of a dumpster, you are not giv­ing him a good chance, are you?

What drives George M. Leader?

Sometimes I’m not sure. I guess I have a little bit of a guilt complex because I didn’t stay in government longer. God gives us all a gift and I think my gift was government. And, my dad. Much of what I do even now – although he’s been gone for a long time – I think I am still trying to please my dad.

How would you like to be remembered?

I just put my tombstone on my burial lot about a month ago. On the back I put “the essence of life is unconditional, non­judgmental love.” I would like to hope that, maybe, I will get good enough one day to deserve to be thought of in those terms. We all have room for improvement on this earth. We all have room for improvement.


For Further Reading

Beers, Paul. Pennsylvania Politics Yester­day and Today. University Park: Pennsylva­nia State University Press, 1980.

____. The Pennsylvania Sampler. Harrisburg: The Stackpole Company, 1970.

Cooper, Richard and Ryland Crary. The Poli­tics of Progress: Gover­nor Leader’s Adminis­tration, 1955-1959. Har­risburg: Penns Valley Pub­lishers, 1982.

Leader, George M. Poems of Inspiration and Motivation. Hershey, Pa.: Leader Publishing, 2001.

McGeary, M. Nelson. Pennsylvania Government in Action: Governor Leader’s Administration (1955-1959). State College, Pa.: Penns Valley Publishers, 1972.

Wolensky, Kenneth, Robert Wolensky and Nicole Wolensky. Fighting for the Union Label: The Women’s Garment Industry and the ILGWU in Pennsylva­nia. Universi­ty Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

Wolensky, Robert, Kenneth Wolensky, and Nicole Wolensky. The Knox Mine Disaster, January 22, 1959: The Final Years of the Northern Anthracite Industry and the Effort to Rebuild a Regional Economy. Har­risburg: Penn­sylvania His­torical and Museum Commission, 1999.


The author expresses sincere gratitude to Governor and Mary Jane Leader for sharing their knowledge, insight, and expertise on many issues, among them state political and public policy history. The author also thanks Mrs. Leader and Rosemarie Pingitore for assistance with collect­ing photographs to illustrate this article.


Kenneth C. Wolensky, a histo­rian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Com­mission, Harrisburg, is a fre­quent contributor to Pennsyl­vania Heritage.