• Rob Hornberger

Local scientist loved gardens, books — and a good single malt

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

Family, friends remember Joe Leach's curious mind and generous heart

Joe and Mary Leach met when he was studying agriculture at the University of Guelph.

KINGSVILLE — It’s a lasting image for anyone who visited the Leach home late in the evening. There was Joe sitting in his leather armchair — lamp overhead, wisps of white hair luminous under the light, face in profile, glasses resting below the bridge of his nose — reading.

Joe Leach died just over a year ago on Sept. 28, 2019, at his home on Division Street, his books nearby and his garden in view. He was 88.

“He was very happy to be at home,” said his daughter, Dr. Leslie Leach. “My sister said he had a big smile when the ambulance people delivered him home from the hospital that morning.”

In the funeral announcement, there was a quote from Marcus Tillius Cicero, a Roman scholar, statesman and lawyer: “If you have a garden and a library you have everything you need.”

Cicero was right, but he forgot a few other things, like family, friends — and a good single malt whisky.

Joe knew the DNA of what went into a Scottish single malt: the soil, the peat, the type of water, the type of barley, all the elements that give each whisky its taste, body and colour.

Whisky is an important precursor to any story about Joe because whisky and his love of conversation were often intertwined.

Joe loved telling stories about his family, especially his wife Mary. One of his favourites was when he and Mary were away in Windsor attending a concert. While away, someone broke into the garage freezer and began eating a box of Mary’s homemade butter tarts. The man, a Canadian soldier on leave, then went into the main house — the door was unlocked — with the tarts and dozed off on a couch, surrounded by a halo of crumbs.

Joe Leach loved tending the garden at the family's Division Street home.

Fortunately, a friend of the Leaches’ daughter Catherine called the house and the man picked up the phone. The friend heard a voice that wasn’t familiar, became suspicious and called the police. The man was later arrested and charged.

On the day of the trial Assistant Crown Attorney Rod Guthrie, the prosecutor, was reading case files when he turned to the back of the courtroom.

“I thought I would turn around and see if I could see Mary in the crowd because she was our main witness,” said Guthrie, who was living in Kingsville at the time and knew the Leaches.

“And of all of the seats for Mary to pick and for all of the people for her to sit beside, she picked the seat right beside the accused.”

There was Mary, engaged in a friendly, animated chat with the man.

“They were both obviously enjoying each other’s company and I just thought, well, I should settle the case at this point.”

Joe loved telling that story and he was always thankful the soldier never discovered his large collection of single malts.

Or there was the story of his grandson, Kevin Franklin, asking his grandmother to help bake a pie and then entering the pie, under his name, in the Harrow Fair. He won first prize in the lemon meringue category.

Joe really loved telling that story.

Or Kevin hacking into the Kingsville high school computer system and retrieving an advance copy of an upcoming exam.

Joe really, really, loved telling that one.

Kevin Franklin, shown as a toddler with Joe Leach, said his grandfather "gave us a sense of curiosity and adventure."

“Why did he like that story?” Kevin said. “I think it was because he always told us to keep an open mind. Not to think like everybody says you should think. So, I think he saw we had the challenge of getting an acceptable grade and he appreciated the way we found to do it.”

Franklin later went on to work for Microsoft and designed the popular Halo 4 and 5 series of video games. He now co-owns First Strike Games and is based out of Bellevue, Washington.

“It’s all a credit to grandpa,” he said. “I mean he was the one who gave us a sense of curiosity and adventure.

“He taught us all sorts of things. He bought me my first gaming console.”

When Joe would laugh he would slightly hunch his shoulders inward and give out a low, deep, mellifluous chuckle. If his laugh was a joy to hear, so was his accent. Canadian, but not quite Canadian, Irish, but not quite Irish, somewhere floating, drifting in the middle. His voice would caress the air.

“All his family spoke that way,” said daughter Catherine. “They all had the same way of speaking, the same inflection, the same lilt.”

Joe loved his garden and in his declining days another of his grandsons, Patrick Franklin, would tend his much-loved roses. It was source of solace and comfort the garden remained well-tended.

Kingsville resident Harry Roettele remembers Joe with fondness. He said that a few days after his wife Marie’s death in 2003 he heard a knock at the door. There was Joe, with a bottle of single malt in hand, and Mary — who is now struggling with Alzheimer’s — with one of her famous pies, offering a bit of kindness and thoughtfulness at a time of sorrow and loss.

“It meant a lot to me,” Roetelle said.

Joe was also generous. When a friend’s car broke down and he had no means of getting to work, Joe lent him his truck.

Catherine Leach

When neighbours down Division Street were burned out of their home, he said the family of five could stay in the guest house. There was no mention of rent.

“They never asked about payment,” said Sarah Sacheli. “I had the insurance company write them a cheque because I figured they may not accept mine.

“Mary would make us dinner and fold our laundry. My son, who was in high school at the time, would sit and talk with Joe about plant and animal biology.”

Joseph Henry Leach was born in Cache Bay, near Sturgeon Falls, Ont., in 1931. His father, Clarence Leach was a dairy farmer who lost the family farm during the Great Depression.

Clarence moved to Alliston where he became a farm manager and eventually bought another farm. The farm, long since sold, is now part of the Nottawasaga Inn Resort and golf course. Leach Road leads into the resort.

Joe went to Guelph University, then attached to the University of Toronto, to study agriculture and there met his wife, Mary Fraser. He later acquired a degree in microbiology, also from the University of Toronto. He also had a lengthy career in banking during and between degrees and received numerous promotions.

In 1966, he packed up his young family and moved to Scotland where he studied at the University of Aberdeen. He researched freshwater plankton and earned a Ph.D degree.

The bulk of his career was spent working as a research scientist at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Fisheries Station in Wheatley.

“I remember being so proud he was my grandfather. And I was also inspired to see his research published. It enabled me to learn more about what he did.”

Joe played an important role in the study of invasive species, particular the effect of zebra mussels, which were introduced into the Great Lakes from the discharged ballast water of ocean-going freighters.

Joe was a past president of the International Association for Great Lakes Research and served on the Board of Technical Experts of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

He modestly referred to himself as a “Friend of the Great Lakes.”

He wrote many research papers for scientific journals.

His granddaughter Dr. Caroline Franklin, a forestry research scientist, has read some of his papers and remembers one in particular.

She was studying at the University of Toronto, sitting in a large lecture hall, when her professor handed out a bunch of research papers to analyze and critique. One was written by her grandfather, Joe Leach.

“I remember being so proud he was my grandfather,” she said. “And I was also inspired to see his research published. It enabled me to learn more about what he did.”

Joe Leach is survived by his wife, Mary, daughters Catherine and Leslie, and grandchildren Kevin, Caroline and Patrick Franklin and Ian and Alex Thompson.

The last book Joe read before his death was The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan.

A collection of single-malt Scotch whiskies at the Leach house.

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