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In The News

NBC Today Correspondent Hits the Road

Category: RV News
Source: USA Today
Publish Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Summary: NBC's Today updates viewers on the cross-country trip reporter Mike Leonard took with his parents, Jack and Marge, in a Holiday Rambler RV.

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By Peter Johnson, USA TODAY

WINNETKA, Ill. — What would you do if your parents — two characters in their 80s — were miserable after they made an impulsive move from San Diego to Phoenix?

And you heard something in their voices over the phone that gave you the sinking feeling that their next stop — if there were one — would be a nursing home?

This was the question last year facing Mike Leonard, whose quirky slice-of-life features air on NBC's Today. What to do?

Then he got an idea: Rent a recreational vehicle and take the folks on one final lap around the country. He'd enlist his twenty- and thirtysomething children, Kerry, Brendan and Matt, and Matt's wife, Margarita, to come along.

"It's January," said Leonard's wife, Cathy.

"Actually, I think I'll get two RVs," Leonard said.

The ensuing trip became the subject of a four-part series that aired last July, was an instant Today classic and spawned a book and a movie deal. Leonard's two-part update begins today.

In the original tale, Leonard, 57, and the kids have bit parts. The stars of this on-the-road saga clearly are Marge and Jack Leonard, partners for 61 years. She's a wry, 83-year-old redhead, a charming pessimist. He's 88, a quintessential people person and eternal optimist.

These attractive opposites take center stage in what amounts to a curtain call for the common man. But not the final one.

The five-week, cross-country trek began on Jan. 27, 2004, with Leonard hopeful of good things to come but having no clue how it would turn out — his basic reporting technique on Today for the past 25 years. The trip cost Leonard $20,000: NBC wouldn't pay for it after Leonard said it was basically something he felt he had to do for his folks, but he didn't know whether it would result in a story.

His road tale — funny at times, poignant at others — resonated with viewers and Today staffers. News anchor Ann Curry teared up on the air. Hundreds of viewers wrote in, saying the series made them think about trips taken or not taken, conversations had or not had with their own parents.

Leonard's camera had captured the essence of an elderly American couple — and their many charms.

Cruising back roads with Mike at the wheel of the Holiday Rambler, the kids following in a Winnebago, the Leonards marvel time and again not at the beauty of the countryside or tourist spots such as the Alamo, but at all the franchises: McDonald's, Dillard's, Costco.

"Look, Marge, another Subway," Jack says.

"Look, Jack, McDonalds," Marge says.

Marge — terrified of speed and bridges — hides in the RV's bathroom, fearing imminent death. Combing her hair, she tries to cover a bald spot from Leonard's camera.

Jack, ace raconteur and schmoozer, talks up strangers at every stop and must be coaxed back onto the bus. Marge narrates, knowing him better than anyone.

Something old, something new

They visit Cajun bayous and small towns in Georgia and Mississippi before bittersweet returns to their college alma maters and a jarring drive-by to their once-pristine childhood neighborhood in Paterson, N.J., now poor and seedy eight decades later.

In New London, Conn., where Jack was stationed during World War II, the Leonards recall how none of the sailors in their apartment building made it back alive, how they could hear their widows' cries through the walls.

There is talk, not much, of a daughter who died after birth there. It's the first time Leonard ever heard his parents speak of his older sister. He wonders how the family dynamic (Leonard has three brothers) "would have changed if we had had an older sister."

Leonard and his kids — not his folks — find baby Ann's unmarked grave in a local cemetery and plan to put a gravestone there.

Meanwhile, back home in Chicago, Leonard's fourth child, Megan, is pregnant with his first granddaughter, Josie, and gives birth a few days after everyone returns.

"For months afterward I could not go a day without people stopping me anywhere to say, 'You don't know me, but I have to tell you,' " Leonard says.

"It was a real reality show. People saw parts of their parents in it: 'Oh, I couldn't stand being in an RV with my parents for that long,' or 'I wish I had had the time to do that.'"

At a time when millions of baby boomers are dealing with or facing the prospect of life without their parents, the theme of Leonard's trip — son takes folks on one last fling — appealed to a New York agent who had been after Leonard for 20 years to write a book.

When she finally coaxed him into finishing an outline, it fetched a $1 million advance from Random House, an extraordinary sum for a first book. Disney then bought the film rights for a fee that could end up approaching the book advance.

Leonard is sharing the advance with his kids, who work with him at his small video production company. He says they took a chance on what essentially was his whim.

The book is due out next spring. In it, Leonard will expand on many subjects that he and his parents discussed and events that molded their personalities: Jack describing how his mother collapsed and died at his feet during an outing in New York City when he was 19. How as a commander of an escort ship in a convoy during the war, he had to leave behind a disabled ship — and heard it torpedoed in the dark Atlantic minutes later, dooming a bunch of boys who were just about his grandson Brendan's age.

"Sometimes you don't get to read the label of your parents' lives," Leonard says. "Life goes by too fast. But when you have nothing to do but read the label, you know every ingredient. This trip was like that. I was looking at them, and they were looking at me, and my kids were looking at them, and they were looking at my kids."

The advance on the book and the movie rights are unlikely payoffs for Leonard, a network news loner who works out of his white clapboard house. He has few friends in the business and has never been particularly saluted by it. He doesn't bother to submit any of his stories for a news Emmy.

"Throughout my career there have been times like, 'Nah, you wouldn't do that,' and I would do it. They'd go left, and I'd go right," Leonard says. He has no formal journalism training and didn't get into TV until he was 30 after lean years of jobs as diverse as construction worker and title examiner.

A whiffleball wizard

Leonard rarely watches TV and never watches Today— not because he has anything against the program but because it would cut into his daily exercise routine at a gym and on the shores of Lake Michigan, a short run from his house.

A so-so student but a decent hockey player at Providence College, Leonard tried to go pro but didn't make it. He still skates and shoots pucks on weekends.

He works from home because it suits him but also because he and the kids, who all live nearby, can transform the front lawn within a matter of minutes into a whiffleball field, complete with night lights, bases and netting to stop fly balls.

He loves whiffleball and is up for a game anytime. NBC sportscaster Bob Costas, whom Leonard met during the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, has stopped by the house twice to play during trips to Chicago.

Leonard's Today features are unique: what it's like to be named Joe Blow; a story on the National Cheese Championship in Wisconsin, where he was the only reporter; and a rumination on where a sock goes when it gets lost in a washing machine.

"I was always more like, 'Why do women wear perfume that smells like flowers when no guys like flowers? Give me one that smells like glue or Magic Marker, and I'll be attracted to that girl.' If you tried to pitch 90% of the stories I do, the producers would say, 'Where's the story?'"

He got a lucky break in 1980 after about a year at a local station in Phoenix. Richard Salant, the late CBS News president who had moved to NBC, caught one of his trademark features on a trip there and recommended him to NBC brass in New York.

Leonard has had his way on stories for more than two decades, ever since Today producer Steve Friedman hired him to report features from NBC's Chicago bureau.

Leonard quickly tired of assignments. Anyone could report on gas prices and prison riots, he figured, so one day he submitted a piece on handshakes: good, bad and indifferent.

Friedman liked it. "I'm not going to give you any assignments," he said. "Just do what you want."

Successive Today producers all have followed Friedman's lead and left Leonard alone. No one approves his scripts beforehand, which is unheard of in the collaborative world of network news.

"Mike's pieces stem from a fertile mind: He brings you stuff that nobody else can bring," Friedman says.

"That's why Today producers leave him alone. He delivers."

Leonard's parents left Phoenix and now live a few minutes from him in a bright apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. Jack has since lost his right ear to cancer but seems to be doing fine with just one. Marge is still a pistol.

Leonard says what probably made the trip a success was that he had no grand plan.

"I thought this would be good for my parents. They needed a spark, and it would give them so much to think about. And it'd give my kids something to think about, too."

Everyone has a story, Leonard says. Marge and Jack "are just regular people who haven't done anything to get any particular honor. They're a trip."

Mike Leonard, in his own words

Why the road trip: "My parents were just sitting there, like they had steered their rickety old boat into a long dock and couldn't back up. I saw this as something I had to do. It was like, let's just give them their last ride."

About Marge and Jack: "My mom complains, but it's just sarcasm. The only thing dad complains about, all the time, is how the little guy is getting screwed. He's right about that. My mother is right about people. He'll say, 'I like that Charlie. He's a good guy.' And my mom will say, 'Charlie's a jerk!'"

Why the trip was good: "My mom is terrified of anything that moves more than 5 miles an hour. I thought, 'She must have hated that place in Phoenix if she's willing to get into this tin can and go over mountains.'"

Surprises on the road: "I'd ask them little questions that ended up having the biggest answers. 'When you were a kid, what did your mom make for lunch on Saturdays?' The answer became what they did on Saturdays."

A priceless moment: Crossing the George Washington Bridge, Jack says, "My dad brought me here the day it opened (in 1931), and it cost 50 cents. I said, 'How come they make you pay?' He says, 'Because in five years it'll be paid for.'" (Crossing into Manhattan now costs $6.)

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