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  • Writer's pictureRoger Sims, Journal Staff

Two communities remember beloved teacher, mentor, coach

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Randy Leach, a coach and teacher for two Linn County school districts, rides in last year's Sugar Mound Arts & Crafts parade. At a memorial service for Leach on Oct. 1, almost every speaker talked about the smile he seemed to always wear. (Photos by Roger Sims/Linn County Journal)

MOUND CITY – There were stories. There was laughing. There were tears. There were moments when speakers almost couldn’t contain their emotions. And then there was more laughter.

It was a service that Randy Leach – a coach, teacher and mentor to hundreds of Linn County students, a colleague to dozens of educators and a devoted father and husband – would likely appreciate.

More than 400 friends, students and family members turned out for a memorial service for Randy at Jayhawk-Linn High School on Saturday, Oct. 1. Randy, who was 58, died on Sept. 25 after a long battle with cancer.

And while the family held a private funeral for him a couple days before, the event at JLHS gave the opportunity for his extended families from Prairie View and Jayhawk-Linn communities to remember and grieve.

Although he became a teacher and coach at Jayhawk in 2015, Randy first began working in Linn County as a science teacher at Prairie View Middle School and a coach for Prairie View High School.

Randy left Prairie View to become the head football coach at JLHS in 2015. In addition to his coaching duties, he also was the school’s athletic director and taught junior high science classes. He retired from the district at the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Born in Iola, he graduated from Erie High School and went on to attend Labette Community College in Parsons, where he played baseball. Making a switch in sports, he transferred to Independence (Kansas) Community College to play football.

He went on to play football at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, before returning to Kansas to play football at Pittsburg State University. It was at Pitt State where he received a bachelor’s degree with a major in biology and minor in physical science. While there he also competed in track and was on the PSU rugby team, which would lead to a stint playing on the Kansas City Blues, a semi-pro rugby team.

Randy would later earn a master’s degree in education with a concentration in technology-enhanced teaching.

Jennifer Leach places a container holding the ashes of Randy's beloved dog, Shirley Pearl, on the table next to an urn containing his at the beginning of the service.

Becoming a teacher

After becoming certified to teach, he returned to Erie to become a full-time substitute teacher and football coach for a year. The next year he was hired to become a science teacher there.

In 1995, he accepted a teaching and coaching position at Prairie View. It was during his first year at Prairie View that the high school counselor, Marsha Wunderly, set up a blind date for Randy and an 18-year-old community college student from Prescott, Jennifer Johnson.

Marsha knew Jennifer’s family and thought that with Jennifer’s maturity and Randy’s boyishness, the two would hit it off. After all, the two were both in their early to mid-20s and had similar backgrounds, or so she thought.

At the public service for Randy, Jennifer said she was more than happy to try it. Her last choices had not been good, so why not. Marsha assured her that they would be very compatible.

Blind date with a surprise

So a date was set up, a new dress was purchased and at the scheduled time, she was ready for Randy to arrive. But the time passed, and more time passed. She then received a call from Marsha saying that Randy had been knocking on doors in Fulton, the wrong town, trying to find her house instead of showing up at Prescott.

He finally arrived, Jennifer recounted, and the two set out toward Pittsburg to dine. As they were driving, the conversation got around to each other’s age. When Randy told Jennifer he was 31, she was shocked.

But when she told him she was 18, he too was surprised. Jennifer said he then asked if she had graduated from high school. Her reply was an indignant “yes,” and she informed him she had graduated from Jayhawk when she was 17 and that she was enrolled in community college.

Fearing that his school district might not look too favorably on a teacher dating a much younger woman, Jennifer said he told her, “I could lose my job because of this.”

In a separate interview, Marsha said the next day after the date he came into her office and told her about the age difference, and she was shocked as well. She said she had no idea that he was that old.

As Jennifer told the story, the audience laughed loudly and often, dispelling again any notion that the memorial service was one of gloom and sadness.

Carley Mayberry, Randy's daughter, comforts her husband Micah as he talks about the impact Randy had on his life.

Marsha’s initial instinct about the pair was spot-on. Despite that age difference, in early 1996 Jennifer and Randy were married and it wasn’t long before their children, Wesley and Carley Leach, were born.

At the service, Carley remembered her father as being authentic, kind, generous, quick-witted, patient, and trustworthy, to name a few of his attributes. “I am so grateful to have a dad that was able to love, support, encourage and guide me through the ups and downs of life,” she said.

“Dad accepted all and did not judge,” she said, recalling an instance where her father, much to the consternation of her mother, invited a bicyclist no one knew riding solo across the country to come to their house to eat and catch a shower.

Father-in-law as a father

Carley’s husband, Micah Mayberry, gave an emotional speech, halting to regain his composure at times, on how Randy readily accepted him into the family. He said that Randy was a mentor to him and helped him grow as a person.

Later, Jennifer said that Micah had grown up without a father, and that Randy had stepped in to fill that role. She said the two had become very close.

Randy’s son, Wes, recounted all the things Leach wanted in a son.

Members of the Jayhawk football team listen as Wes Leach talks about his father.

“He wanted a son that was fast, strong, quick feet, and luckily he got that,” Wes said before turning to his brother-in-law Micah, a former collegiate football player at the University of Northern Iowa who is completing training for the Navy. “So thank you for checking all those boxes.”

After the laughter subsided, Wes said how Randy had the unique gift of meeting a person and within minutes having that person believing in themselves like they had never believed in themselves before. “He truly lived his life selflessly and took every opportunity to better every one around him.”

Tree Mulkin, Wes’ fiancé, told the audience how Randy always cared for his children and their families. “He was known to make sure that our cars were always clean and full of gas, freezers and bellies were full of meat, and our heads not too big. He always made sure to let us know if we were wrong, and that’s something I can appreciate.”

Keeping a sense of humor

Rob Leach, Randy’s brother, then spoke, focusing on his brother’s sense of humor as well as some of the incidents they shared that were memorable.

Like the time the two boys were wrestling in the kitchen of their parents’ home and Randy shoved Rob. But instead of Rob reeling across the room, it was Randy’s butt that was shoved through the drywall, leaving a sizable hole in the wall.

With their father out of town for a few days, the brothers turned to coach Roy Bishop for advice, and he helped them fix the hole and apply wallpaper to the wall to hide the repair before their father’s return, Rob said.

Even as he began battling cancer, Randy kept his sense of humor. Rob said that while Randy received the genes for a healthy head of hair, he did not. However, as Randy began his rounds of chemotherapy and began losing hair, he sent a picture of himself to Rob via text with the message, “Still more hair than you.”

Israel Stanage, who had Leach as a football coach at Prairie View, remembered Randy as a coach and mentor. In the time leading up to the death of Israel’s father, Ken Stanage, in 2008, Randy stepped in to help as Ken battled amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Jennifer said that Israel and his family became an additional support system for her family when Randy became ill.

“The man was always smiling, always happy, always full of joy,” Israel said.

And while the coach could be a taskmaster and even rise to anger on rare occasion, he always put things in perspective. “When it came to sports, the perspective almost always was ‘It’s just a damn game,’” Israel said.

Former Prairie View head football coach Sterling Hudson, center, leads current and past players that were coached by Randy in a victory circle and dance at the end of the memorial service.

Celebration in a victory circle

Royce Powelson, former Jayhawk superintendent who was master of ceremonies for the event, said that Randy taught with a greater purpose than most.

“He taught life. Life lessons such as honesty, team work, hard work, and doing right, were most important to him,” Powelson said. “Our faith leads us to believe that Randy does not want us to be sad and crying.”

Theresa White, an English teacher at JLHS, read a poem, “Coaches’ Lounge,” she had composed for Randy. The poem referenced Randy’s apparent dislike for cheese (except on pizza), which several speakers that day noted.

Here is an excerpt from her poem:

Hope heaven has a coaches’ lounge

Where food, grilling, and drink

Makes us gladder.

Hope heaven has a coaches’ lounge

& food to please–without that nasty cheese

That doesn’t matter.

I know heaven will have a coaches’ lounge

With talk of modest win, gracious seats

Randy, a man of great stature.

Finally, at the end of the service, Wes invited football players from both Prairie View and Jayhawk to come out of the bleachers and participate in a victory dance led by Randy’s former colleague Sterling Hudson.

As Sterling led the chant, the players, both young and those not so young, gathered in a circle, arms across each others’ shoulders, and moved alternately clockwise then counterclockwise in celebration.

It was a celebration of friendship, of camaraderie, of learning and mentoring, of remembering. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

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