Leader's legacy: A young governor left a record of progress

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When George M. Leader died last week at the age of 95, many Pennsylvanians did not remember his name. But when he was elected governor at the age of 36, his fame was meteoric and he made the cover of Time magazine on Nov. 15, 1954. His achievements would turn out to be considerable, too.

It was a shock when he, a Democrat, beat Republican Lt. Gov. Lloyd Wood, whom the Post-Gazette had endorsed. Although Mr. Leader had name recognition from having served in the state Senate, Republicans had a 900,000-voter registration edge. Yet he won by more than a quarter of a million votes.

He did it in part by advertising on a new medium, television. Being a savvy member of a young generation served him well once he became the state's 36th governor and its second youngest -- he turned 37 the day before inauguration. He was an agent of change.

Many politicians can be faulted for never having made a payroll, but Mr. Leader's life experience added substance to his ideas. After service on an aircraft carrier in World War II, he bought a farm in York County where he ran a chicken hatchery. As governor, he served one four-year term, as limited by law at the time, and was succeeded by Gov. David L. Lawrence of Pittsburgh. After Mr. Leader's political career ended, he founded a retirement-community chain.

From 1955 to 1959, Gov. Leader sought to rid government of patronage, embarked on a school building program and required the education of disabled children for the first time. He increased support for the needy, built highways and added state parks. He also cut the number of patients in state mental hospitals, from 39,000 to 11,000, by funding clinics that helped people live outside of institutions.

He was the first governor to appoint a Cabinet member who was black and he signed legislation in 1955 that established the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. Its current chairman, Gerry Robinson, issued a telling statement on his death: "Gov. Leader was years ahead of the nation in setting a path toward making equal employment opportunity a reality in Pennsylvania."

His fame may have been fleeting, but his legacy lives on.

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