Longtime SHRM Writer Bill Leonard Remembered

By Natalie Kroc Jun 8, 2015

​​Bill Leonard, SHRM

writer, 1989-2015

Bill Leonard, a reporter and editor at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) for 26 years, died on May 27, 2015, after a heart attack near his home in Asheville, N.C. He was 58.

One of the Society’s longest-term employees, Leonard wrote countless articles for HR Magazine, other publications and its website. He joined the Society in March 1989 as a reporter and editor, primarily for HR News, a monthly newspaper.

“Bill lived SHRM’s values—that our members matter, that what we do matters, and that how we do things matters,” said Henry G. “Hank” Jackson, SHRM president and CEO. “He took our mission to serve HR professionals and advance the HR profession seriously, and it showed in every story he wrote.

"No matter the topic, if you saw Bill’s byline, you could expect the facts, expert analysis, and a compelling story to go along with it. Bill helped us make sense of the world, as the best writers do. He will be missed not only by SHRM, but by the entire HR profession.”

Leonard is survived by his wife, Sharon, whom he met when both worked at SHRM, and their two daughters, Katie and Elizabeth.

“It was a joy to watch his family grow up,” said Susan Meisinger, president and CEO of SHRM during 2002-08. “He was a doting father, a proud father. Most recently his daughter [Elizabeth] had some poetry published and he was crowing about that to the world.”

The family moved in 2005 to Asheville, making Leonard a long-distance telecommuter. The move was not a surprise to many. “We’re ninth-generation North Carolinians,” said brother Michael Leonard, a lawyer in Winston-Salem, N.C. “This is a family that is very deeply rooted in this state.”

Leonard loved the outdoors and the mountains, and he spoke of wanting his daughters to grow up in a place he loved.

Working and reporting from afar was not that difficult, given Bill’s wide network of sources and capability to cover Congressional hearings and witness testimony streamed over the Internet.

And he excelled at keeping in touch with colleagues at headquarters. “It still felt like he worked at the office,” said Leon Rubis, vice president of editorial at SHRM. Staff referred to him as SHRM’s “Asheville bureau.”

Leonard covered a wide range of subjects, and landed interviews with several U.S. secretaries of Labor and every Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairperson since 1980. Getting high-level officials to agree to interviews for magazine features “is not easy, but Bill was persistent in pursuing them,” Rubis said.

Leonard broke several stories picked up by national news outlets, including one about former Labor Secretary Robert Reich joining an Occupational Safety and Health Administration shutdown of an Oklahoma tire factory that was later covered by The Wall Street Journal. A story about a SHRM member who was punished by the Navy for blowing the whistle on an illegal recruiting policy was investigated by “60 Minutes.”

Leonard’s many sources among SHRM members and HR professionals made him especially effective at covering HR angles on national stories such as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995; the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and other devastating natural disasters. In 2013, Leonard interviewed Heather Abbot, an HR professional who lost a leg in the Boston marathon bombing.

Leonard's genuine personality and Southern charm endeared him to colleagues and news sources alike. “One of the things that I liked about Bill was that it wasn’t all business,” said frequent source John Challenger of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “We got to talking about things; we had real conversations.”

“He was great with the [SHRM] volunteers and his sources,” Meisinger said. “The people he interviewed felt safe that he would—and I think that he really did—treat them fairly and honestly.”

“He would ask you what you really thought about an issue,” said Edwin Foulke, now a lawyer in Atlanta, who served as assistant secretary of labor for OSHA under President George W. Bush, and was on SHRM’s Safety and Health Special Expertise Panel for nearly a decade. “It wasn’t like he was pressing you to answer in a certain way to push any kind of agenda.”

“He always wanted to know more,” said Beth Mirza, SHRM’s director of online news operations. “He could see trends, he could analyze. He was able to take really complex ideas and break them down … to translate legislation so HR professionals could understand ‘Why should I care?' "

Adventurous Upbringing

William Borden Leonard was the fourth of five children born to Catherine and Charles. The family’s house was near Charlotte, N.C., in an area that was then very rural and included creeks and woods to play in.

Catherine stayed home while Charles, who had worked at a military tire factory in Belgium during World War II, went into the tire recapping business.

“My mother always said … Bill was the easiest to get along with, the least troublesome,” said Michael Leonard. Though “troublesome” might be a bit relative, since Michael admitted that “being outspoken, being argumentative, was a family trait.”

The children all developed an avid interest in history, sparked by long summer car trips to see historical sights. Michael recalled one trip to the Canadian capital of Ottawa, then to Montreal, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Leonard graduated in from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduation, he worked for a short time in Atlanta, proofreading for a commercial printer. He worked during 1983-88 at his hometown Charlotte Observer as an editorial assistant and then as a reporter in its York, S.C., bureau.

Leonard moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 1988 to take an associate editor job at U.S. Association Executive in Bethesda, Md. He joined SHRM—then called the American Society for Personnel Administration—in 1989.

For many years Leonard managed production of the Conference Daily newspaper, distributed four days at the SHRM Annual Conference & Exposition. This was especially difficult in the days before desktop publishing and photo-editing software and Internet transmission of files to printers.

Leonard traveled to the conference city in advance to find a local printer and a 1-hour photo shop near the convention center. During the conference, SHRM member volunteers were enlisted to make frequent deliveries of rolls of film and pickups of hundreds of developed photos each day. In addition to reporting on conference events, Leonard sorted through photos to select the best, laid out pages, and drove page layouts, photos and ads to the printer each evening.

Logging 16-hour days at the conference was common, and fielding the occasional 3 a.m. call from a printer about a missing photo was part of the job.

Wide-Ranging Interests

Leonard was a frequent hiker and camper and a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club.

He was a rabid fan of his beloved UNC Tar Heels basketball team. In a blog he maintained, his last post in February mourned the passing of former coach Dean Smith. In the post, “Light Blue Tears on a Sunday,” Leonard wrote that Smith “in many ways defined who I am today.”

Leonard’s love of history, in particular the Civil War and the Confederacy, led him to serve as a docent for several years at Arlington House in Arlington National Cemetery. He dressed in period costume and gave tours of the house where Robert E. Lee lived for 30 years before the war.

Leonard’s other loves included live music, beer and barbecue.

Shirley Raybuck, a SHRM senior design specialist, remembers that the Leonards had barbeque catered to their wedding reception but Leonard told the caterers not to put any sauce on it—that he’d make the sauce. “He made the most wonderful sauce,” said Raybuck, who counts herself as one of the few in possession of his recipe. And she recalled that, “Before he was married, he was a much-sought-after dance partner at SHRM parties.”

“Bill took such joy in things,” his brother Michael said. “In writing, hiking, camping. He took joy in his work. And he took such joy in his daughters.”

Memorials may be made to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, 34 Wall St., Suite 502, Asheville, NC, 28801.

Natalie Kroc is a SHRM staff writer.


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