Former Gov. George M. Leader, who headed Pennsylvania's government from 1955 to 1959 and remained active in politics for decades thereafter, died Thursday. He was 95.
Two grandchildren were with Mr. Leader when he died at 5 a.m. at his home at Country Meadows nursing home in Hershey, part of the retirement-community chain that he founded, said spokeswoman Kelly S. Kuntz.
"Up until two weeks ago he was still going to work," Ms. Kuntz said. "Gov. Leader lived a very full, active life."
Mr. Leader's wife, the former Mary Jane Strickler, moved into Country Meadows first, but he joined her and they lived there together before her death in March 2011.
The son of York chicken farmers, Mr. Leader, a Democrat, was 37 when he became governor. He led a staff bent on ridding government of patronage jobs and improving social services. His administration overhauled the mental health system and made special education a requirement in Pennsylvania schools.
He was the first governor to appoint a black Cabinet officer. He worked in later life as a private citizen on prison reform, and as recently as this year, lent his name to drives to improve state prisons and rename the Department of Public Welfare.
He served in the state Senate from 1951 to 1954.
Mr. Leader had started out to be a teacher but instead he became a farmer, branched out into politics and then entered the nursing home field. He was highly successful in every endeavor.
During his term as governor, his administration conducted a widespread investigation into nursing homes, which left Mr. Leader with an abiding interest in the care of the incapacitated and the elderly. After leaving office, he developed a string of 23 nursing homes, highly regarded for their emphasis on rehabilitation.
His interest in politics was predictable. His father, the late state Sen. Guy A. Leader, had been a long-time staunch Democrat in York County.
"Democratic politics were everyday conversation at the Leaders' [home] ever since I can remember," he once said. "I grew into it naturally."
He majored in economics and political science at Gettysburg College and received his B.S. degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania in l939.
His father's illness, however, brought Mr. Leader back to York County to help run the family farming enterprise. He succeeded his father as a York County Democratic committeeman and two years later he became secretary of the county committee. At the age of 28, he became county chairman and held that post until 1950, when he was elected a state senator.
His postgraduate studies at Penn were cut short by World War II. He joined the U.S. Naval Reserve and served aboard the cruiser USS Randolph in the Pacific theater as an ensign and lieutenant.
At the war's end, he returned to his father's agricultural firm but a year later he purchased the 28-acre Willow Brook Farm in York County, a hatchery which then was producing 100,000 chicks a year. By 1954, his hatchery was producing more than a million chicks and 60,000 broilers annually. He also was operating an 89-acre cattle farm nearby.
Despite the hard work and long hours on the farms, he maintained his active interest in politics. When his father retired from the state Senate for health reasons in 1950, George was elected to succeed him.
His first campaign for a statewide office ended in defeat; he was beaten in his bid for state treasurer in 1952 during Dwight Eisenhower's Republican presidential landslide. He managed to poll more than 2 million votes, however, and he was nominated for the governorship two years later.
Despite a 900,000 GOP registration edge in those days, he managed to beat his Republican opponent, Lt. Gov. Lloyd Wood, by 1,987,247 votes to 1,706,637.
On Jan. 18, 1955, the day after he turned 37, he was inaugurated; he was only the third Democrat to hold the governorship since the Civil War.
His administration was credited with the nation's largest school-building program of that time, a revised mental health program based on cure rather than custody, a program for teaching disabled children in public schools, improved programs for those with severe mentally disabilities, increased support for public health, vastly improved programs for the needy, unprecedented highway building and the creation of additional state parks.
He campaigned actively for Democratic candidates in later years but he turned down a bid for the governorship again in 1966 in favor of staying involved in his nursing-home chain -- which by then had 3,000 employees and 3,500 residents.
Survivors include four children. Hoover Funeral Homes and Crematory in Hershey is handling funeral arrangements.
The Associated Press contributed. First Published May 10, 2013 4:00 AM