By Shane Nicholson
Rockford has lost another great friend and ally: Brian Leaf, the longtime Register Star reporter and mainstay of the community’s music and bar scene, passed away Wednesday. He was 57.
Leaf was someone I could call at 7 a.m. or 11 p.m. and knew that if he answered, I would get what I came for. We talked the other day in such a case: he reassured me that what we were prepping to put on the cover of The Rock River Times for this week would fly. “That’s the right way to go,” he told me. I never imagined it would be the last time my friend and I would speak.
I worked beside Brian many a time. We sat together covering what would be Larry Morrissey’s final State of the City address, at times having to pause our recordings so we wouldn’t get lost later attempting to transcribe through a series of forced puns and quiet laughter. Months later, the day before my wedding and just weeks before he would leave the Star for a second time, we worked a final story together. I was hurriedly rushing out copy at Morrissey’s press conference announcing he would not seek re-election only moments before my rehearsal. “Get the hell out of here,” Brian whispered, leaning over. “If he says anything else important, I’ll text you.”
He always had that right word for the moment, a philosopher’s eye lurking behind those thick black frames. He was the first one to call me the morning after the 2015 tornado that struck Rochelle and Fairdale. I’d been on the ground past midnight reporting on the carnage – for a time the only journalist in town, roaming among the recovery teams and sharing the images via Twitter before filing my final report and retreating to Rockford. “You did some great work last night,” he told me. “I don’t feel too great today,” I said from bed. “That’s all right. You should take the day off; you earned it.” There were no days off; it was our shorthand for dealing with the pain our field can produce. I went to work that morning; he did the same.
Brian was going to join us at my home this past Sunday for a night with no wives. “I’m a definite maybe,” he texted Friday, which in our book always meant “Yes.” And when he told me he hadn’t been feeling well Sunday morning and that he would have to pass, I thought nothing of it. There would be another late night. Another MetroCentre show. Another City Market.
There’s a line item in the 2017 budget I put together for The Times that simply read, “Brian Leaf;” we started planning it as soon as he’d left the Star to go to work at the Beloit School District. He told me only last week to give him another couple months to settle into his new gig and then he’d be ready to get back to work telling tales on the printed page. I’ll never read those words we talked about. This community will lack for them never being completed.
We drank for the last time at the party at Mary’s Place following The Times’ own Frank Schier passing just last month. We shared stories. We critiqued the bands. (We could have done better.) He had remembered Schier with perhaps the finest eulogy I have ever read: “He liked me. Then he liked me not. Today he ran out of petals.” I wish I could do him such justice in his passing.
I’ll miss my friend. I’ll miss my colleague. I’ll miss the challenges we presented one another and the talks that would follow. I’ll miss the beers and the bourbons that inevitably came after. I’ll regret the promises of someday actually getting our guitars together if only for a moment. I’ll mourn the stories we didn’t share and the work left undone. I’ll cry for his family and for myself.
But mostly, I’ll just miss my friend. I’m sure if I could call him right now, he’d reassure me it was the right way to go.