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Chico State

Fond Farewell: Retired Librarian Joel Leonard

A tall brick building glows in the late afternoon sunshine with trees in the foreground.
Jason Halley

Trinity Hall is seen behind the trees on Tuesday, April 30, 2019, in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

Retired librarian Joel Leonard, who served Meriam Library for nearly 26 years, passed away February 23. He was 86.

Born in Cincinnati on March 23, 1936, he moved to Southern California with his family in 1949. After graduating from Claremont Men’s College in 1957, he enlisted in the US Navy and spent four years working in Naval Intelligence. After his service, he attended law school at University of California, Los Angeles, where he met his future wife, Rose-Ellen. Together they decided that careers in law were not for them, and they went on to earn master’s degrees from Rutgers University Graduate School of Library Service.

After working with Rose-Ellen for the Chicago Library system as analysts, Leonard was hired as the business and law librarian at Chico State in 1969. Here, he found his true passion in serving students. Fellow librarian Sarah Blakeslee said Leonard personified “student-centered” before it was an official concept and it was rare to find him in his second-floor office without an undergraduate or master’s candidate in need of research or life help.

Former librarian Randy Hensley agreed, noting Leonard inspired others with his selfless dedication.

“In academic libraries, the tradition had been about the stuff–the books, the periodicals. For Joel, it was about the students,” Hensley said. “He embraced how students would surprise him with what they needed, what they wanted, and what they thought.”

Leonard’s influence on colleagues was equally impactful. Hensley had just graduated with a master’s degree in librarianship in 1973 when he landed his first job at Chico State. During his ensuing nine years in Meriam Library, Leonard would become a mentor, an advocate during the tenure process, and a lifelong friend.

“I was 23 years old, green as grass, and I wanted to be a public librarian, so I really felt like a fish out of water,” he said. “Six months into the job, Joel Leonard came to me and says, ‘There is an English class coming to the library. Do you want to give them a tour?’ That began my 42-year career in the specializing of teaching and learning and libraries.”

Leonard valued and respected intelligence, and did not suffer fools easily, Hensley said. He had a strong personality but also reflected a lot of joy, laughing easily and finding the fun in work.

 “Nobody shaped my career as much as Joel Leonard did,” he said. “He changed me for good, and I carried what he gave me at Chico State my entire career.”

Leonard was also one of the first librarians to teach a credit course, “Library Resources,” in the Department of Geography and Planning. Jim Claflin, who taught the course after Leonard, recalls that he was a helper by nature, which made him a perfect fit as a librarian and teacher.

“Joel was very smart, but more importantly, he was wise,” Claflin said. “He recognized and accepted the complexity of life, yet he could point out the simpler path. With his humble and unpretentious manner, he influenced a generation of geography students, even if it took us years to appreciate his gifts.”

Joel Leonard and his wife stand on a beach.
(Courtesy photo)

In 1995, Leonard retired, as did Rose-Ellen from her role as library director for the Butte County Law Library, and they moved to Marrowstone Island in Washington, where they not only designed their own home but built it together by checking out library books and teaching themselves how to do every aspect of construction.

He is survived by his wife, Rose-Ellen, their families, lifelong friends, and many students who loved him. Many of his former students stayed in touch over the years—calling, emailing, and visiting—and shared how much his teaching and guidance changed their lives.

The University flag will be lowered Monday, May 1, in his memory. No services were held. The family scattered Leonard’s ashes under his favorite cedar tree on Mystery Bay. In his memory, contributions may be made to any animal shelter or animal rescue organization.