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Comfort was his; now he gives it

Tampa General Hospital resident chaplain Brock Leach shares a bond with Tammy Fulkinson, center, and Carol Nadeau before a prayer for Mike Lawn, Fulkinson’s boyfriend and Nadeau’s son, who was hurt trimming a tree. Lawn had been in the hospital for 10 days, and Leach shared prayers each day.

SCOTT MCINTYRE | Times

Tampa General Hospital resident chaplain Brock Leach shares a bond with Tammy Fulkinson, center, and Carol Nadeau before a prayer for Mike Lawn, Fulkinson’s boyfriend and Nadeau’s son, who was hurt trimming a tree. Lawn had been in the hospital for 10 days, and Leach shared prayers each day.

TAMPA

No day challenged the new chaplain more than June 29, the day two Tampa police officers were fatally shot.

Tampa General Hospital was a hub of grief, buzzing with dozens of police, city officials and media.

Brock Leach, a hospital chaplain, spent the day alone in a room with an officer's weeping family. He cannot share what happened or which family was involved. But he was with them all day. He comforted their pastor, too.

"There's all this hubbub," he said, "and yet they're alone in their grief."

Amid all the hurt, Leach took his own advice. He wrote about the scene — seven pages of reflection. He looked for blessings amid pain. He struggled.

To get to this point, to be there at that moment, Brock Leach gave up a private jet, corporate getaways to Italy and Russia and hobnobbing with the likes of Henry Kissinger and the first President Bush.

Why would a big shot at a multi-national corporation leave at his peak?

Many had doubts, but Leach was left with just one question:

"How is it that you can go from marketing soda and snack food to, uh, salvation?"

• • •

Corporate life started in 1982.

Leach joined PepsiCo out of business school at the University of Chicago. Being an assistant product manager at Lays sounded like a learning opportunity.

Turned out, he was really good at selling snack food. So good that he ascended the mammoth company's marketing ranks.

In 1996, he became president and CEO of Frito-Lay North America. He would do the same at sister company Tropicana Products in 1999. Perks abounded over the years: company car, company plane, company allowance.

PepsiCo's acquisition of Quaker Oats in 2001 meant a move to Chicago. With two children in high school, it didn't feel right. It got Leach thinking about other plans.

Leach, 51, was born to Episcopal parents, 16 years behind his brother and 18 behind his sister. Always precocious, he grew up more like an oldest child, said his brother, John, 67, of Colorado Springs.

He was especially close to his mother, a registered nurse who showed him to care for others by temporarily housing families displaced by fires and accidents.

The family moved to Germany when his dad, an engineer, got a job with GM. Brock completed elementary school in Frankfurt before the family moved back to Michigan.

His parents' retirement in Monument, a small Colorado town on the Rockies eastern slope, meant another move, but also a reprieve. He found a church mentor with big ideas. He took Leach and peers to visit alcohol rehabilitation centers. They picked vegetables with migrant farmworkers and met the homeless in downtown Denver.

Heavy stuff for kids. Still, he said, "it was a complete revolution for me."

It got Leach thinking about a community ministry. He liked helping people more than reciting creeds.

His mentor said seminary wasn't the only way to care.

So Leach waited.

• • •

He wanted a graceful exit.

Leach remained as PepsiCo's chief innovation officer for four years. He didn't want PepsiCo to be a "poster child for trans fats" amid an obesity crisis.

Leach championed the company's development of healthier food and drinks, like Baked Lays.

He remains on several boards, including the one he founded, PepsiCo's Blue Ribbon Health and Wellness Advisory Board.

In 2006, Leach realized he had done everything he wanted at PepsiCo.

"He was extraordinarily successful," said former PepsiCo CEO Steven Reinemund. "Had he stayed in the corporate world, he would have continued to make enormous contributions."

Leach knew he had other contributions to offer. At last, he enrolled at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, a Unitarian Universalist seminary.

Taking on a new career at that point can feel like a great personal risk, said the pastor of his home church, the Rev. Margret O'Neall at Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota.

"You're starting a whole new career when most people are thinking about retirement," she said.

She would know. A former associate dean at Saint Louis University, O'Neall and Leach were seminary classmates.

"The work in the hospital requires a person to be really quiet and fully present to other people," she said, "which is a remarkable gift."

• • •

Dressed in a crisp button-down shirt, slacks, loafers and an elegant tie, Brock Leach still looks the part of well-groomed corporate president. But a lot of people at Tampa General don't even know who he is.

Leach took on the chaplain program at Tampa General to fulfill an internship requirement. The gig reduced his sometimes seven-figure salary to a modest five figures.

It hasn't been an easy year.

He leaves his Sarasota home by 6:30 a.m. He drives his son's hybrid 2005 Honda Civic.

At 8 a.m., he huddles in a small conference room with the pastoral care residents, interns and supervisor William Baugh.

They talk about what happened on the overnight shift and the day's major cases. Then they divvy up orders, or visits, and break.

Leach gets orders and the trauma pager. He waits for acronyms like GSW (gunshot wound) and MVA (motor vehicle accident) to flash across the screen, codes for chaos en route.

His job is not to panic, and not to preach — it's certainly not to "put points on the board," like the old days.

The accomplished problem-solver has a simple task: listening. His most important role is just being around for patients and families. He'll give them a prayer if they ask for one.

"It doesn't matter if you're Christian or Hindu," he said, "what you need to know is that you're not alone."

• • •

At life's end, people don't talk about swanky rides or brag about sales figures, Leach says, nodding to his old life.

They evaluate their relationships and choices. Did they fulfill a purpose?

Families question whether a loved one at the end of the road knows how much they care.

In a single visit, Leach could hear a life's worth of confessions.

"People you've never met before within 30 minutes can tell you their deepest sorrows and fears and sins," he said. "It feels like a privilege, most days."

And others?

"I want to walk out of the hospital and kiss the ground."

Julie Leach says her husband was always pretty good at leaving work stress at the office. The couple, married 28 years, would talk about a low performance or declining sales figures only on occasion.

"I used to come home and say, 'It's only potato chips,' " he said. " 'It's not life or death.' "

Now it is.

Comfort was his; now he gives it 08/06/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 6, 2010 8:44pm]

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