A popular TV correspondent chronicles his family’s unforgettable, multigenerational journey of fun and discovery.
By Robbin Gould
Regular viewers of NBC’s Today show are no doubt familiar with the human-interest segments filmed by feature correspondent Mike Leonard. For 25 years he’s been canvassing cities, towns, and out-of-the-way places throughout America, looking for the quirky, heartwarming, or just-plain-funny story to share with his television audience. Not long ago Mike began another kind of cross-country trek: “a journey inside his own family,” as Today show host Matt Lauer described it.
That journey is detailed in Mike’s new book The Ride Of Our Lives: Roadside Lessons Of An American Family (Ballantine Books). In the winter of 2004 Mike took a sabbatical from his Today show duties and embarked on a 30-day motorhome trip with his parents, Jack and Marge Leonard; three of his four adult children, sons Matt and Brendan and daughter Kerry; and Matt’s wife, Margarita. Mike and his parents traveled in a 37-foot Holiday Rambler Neptune type A while the kids drove a Winnebago Minnie Winnie type C.
The two-coach caravan meandered through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and into New England. They toured the Alamo in San Antonio; hobnobbed with hospitable Cajuns in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana; and spent time with Mike’s “holy hip-hop” recording friends in Atlanta, Georgia, among other side trips. Their final stop was Chicago, Illinois, where Mike’s older daughter, Megan, was to give birth to Mike’s first grandchild “” and Jack and Marge’s first great-grandchild.
What made this trip different from other RV excursions? The participants, for starters. Mike himself is an “everyday guy” who’s known for his wry, quirky looks at life. Take his “Leonard’s Look” TV segments, for instance. One recent Today segment featured a boat trip he took to eradicate his fear of fish “” which went awry when a number of huge, gray carp literally jumped aboard, sending him scrambling. Another segment featured a young man who creates amazing pieces of art out of gum wrappers.
Mike also looks for the touching moments in life. Another segment aired on Today shared special glimpses of Matt and Margarita’s wedding day in the fall of 2001, a bright spot following the horror of the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Mike’s Irish immigrant parents also set the stage for an unforgettable trip. He describes them in the book as “a couple of silly, fun-loving live wires . . . oddly matched but oddly perfect for each other,” cut from the same cloth but polar opposites. Readers learn a lot about 82-year-old Marge, who, Mike writes, possesses “a Ph.D. in pessimism” and a howlingly irreverent sense of humor, and 87-year-old Jack, the “patron saint of hope,” an eternal optimist and incessant talker who never meets a stranger. Mike wrote, “Match.com would’ve built a firewall between their applications. Vegas bookies would’ve shut down the wedding-anniversary betting line. It’s the classic mismatch.” But despite their opposite personalities, Jack and Marge argue and laugh and enjoy each other’s company, as they apparently have throughout their 60-plus years of marriage.
Mike’s decision to plan this monthlong motorhome trip was motivated by his parents’ isolation after their move to a rental community in Phoenix, Arizona, turned sour. When he spoke to them on his 56th birthday, he heard the despair in their voices and resolved to do something to cheer them up. But what? The answer came to him in a dream: rent a couple of motorhomes and take the folks on a family adventure.
“I think my parents were immobile,” he said during a visit to FMCA’s Cincinnati office this past spring. “They’re very gregarious people, so they were kind of on an island in Phoenix.
“I also wanted to give them an adventure. I wanted them to be mobile, but I didn’t want them to be going back and forth to airports. Plus, that’s never been the interesting part of my job. The interesting part is the side roads. Most of the people I’ve focused on are the people who are off the main highway.”
Mike planned an itinerary that would take the group to interesting towns and sites he thought his parents would enjoy, sometimes meeting folks he had befriended while filming his Today segments. He added other destinations as well “” Jack’s alma mater, Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and Jack and Marge’s hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. The itinerary wasn’t set in stone, however. “We knew where we wanted to go, basically, but we kept adapting along the way, which was the best part, for me, of having an RV,” Mike said.
The book begins in Mesa, Arizona, with a crisis. Less than a half-hour after picking Marge and Jack up and setting forth on their journey, Margarita runs the Minnie Winnie into a concrete gas pump island at a convenience store, shearing off fiberglass and pieces of metal, which lay scattered around the coach. The trip seems doomed from the start. It wasn’t, of course, despite some humorous interludes with Mike, a neophyte motorhomer, attempting to negotiate the Holiday Rambler among angry rush-hour commuters as he attempted to return to the accident scene. “How were they to know I’m not an RV guy?” he wrote. “I’m not even a car guy. I drive cars, but I don’t know cars. Manifold? Carburetor? If it’s under the hood, it’s over my head.”
On their way to getting the Minnie Winnie repaired, they looked for a place to park overnight. Mike wrote, “Like an apparition, a campsite appeared as if it were some kind of sign from above. Actually, it was a sign from above, a really big one towering over a row of palm trees right down the street from the repair shop. The sign said ‘Camping World.”’
Gathered in the Holiday Rambler each evening, the family shared many spirited conversations about family history and observations on life as they spent virtually uninterrupted time together “” an advantage of traveling by motorhome. “You think you know your family, and I know my family,” Mike said. “We always talk, but with no other distractions around. You know you can turn the TV on, but we didn’t. We knew it was a special ride and a special journey. And so we wanted to make the most of the special journey and really find out more about what [my parents’] life was like. And in doing so we found out about how American life has changed.
“By being able to sit someplace and just talk, we really found out more about each other and about the times and about American history and about what it was like to live there. We had three generations together. Nobody could go off to their room, nobody could get a phone call and leave, so we all did things together,” Mike said.
To live in this family, one must have a sense of humor, and a steady stream of jokes, anecdotes, and one-liners flowed during the trip. Marge told how she and her friends pulled a prank in college, frosting a cake with Ex-Lax, much to the personal distress of the home economics teacher. Jack broke out in song at every opportunity, his internal jukebox seemingly ready to produce any tune, the more ridiculous the better. Mike, not an outdoorsman, described his onetime attempt to rid his basement of a mouse, using a blowgun as his weapon of choice. In San Antonio, Texas, Brendan asked, “Why is Davy Crockett the most famous person to die at the Alamo?” Mike replied, “I don’t know. Because he had a TV show?”
One morning Mike awoke to the sound of chirping. What type of critter had gotten in the coach? It was somewhere in the rear. “Are you okay?” he shouted toward the bedroom door. The chirping stopped long enough for his mother to gasp, in hysterics, “Look at your father’s hair!” After 62 years of marriage, she still found his morning “bed head” hilarious.
Serious topics were discussed, too. The Leonard children heard many stories of day-to-day life in the Depression era. For instance, as a 12-year-old lad, Jack was sent to Ireland to stay with relatives. Clutching written instructions on where he should disembark the boat and where to catch a train to the proper town, a string attached to his hat so it wouldn’t blow into the ocean, he finally arrived at his destination to look for an aunt he had never seen. Back home, his parents didn’t receive word that he had arrived safely for at least a month. Imagine that happening today. Instead of going to school, young Jack remained to work on the family farm for more than a year.
As revealed in The Ride Of Our Lives, some conversations dug deep “” his mother’s relationship with an abusive father; their financial troubles; the death of a daughter. Was Mike afraid of his parents’ reaction to the book?
“Not ‘afraid,’ because in the end I knew they’d come across well. My parents aren’t of the Jerry Springer generation, the open generation, where people are confessing all their ups and downs, and saying ‘I’m a victim.’ They had some ups and downs in their life and what makes their character good is how they got over those bad times … their humanity was shown.”
The Leonards’ trip involved some poignant stops as well. One bitterly cold day in New Jersey, the family toured the graveyard in which Jack’s and Marge’s families were buried. And, of course, joy abounded at the end of the journey when they arrived in Chicago and were on hand to welcome baby Josie into the world.
In the book’s frequent flashbacks, Mike describes madcap memories and pivotal moments from his own life. He admitted that he didn’t expect to be telling so much of his own story. However, there was much more to his parents than their zany natures. He wanted to go further, to illustrate his father’s resilience and his mother’s fighting spirit, and show how these and other qualities had been instilled in their children.
“But I consciously didn’t want to say, ‘This is what I got from my mom; this is what I got from my dad,’ he noted. “It wasn’t my job to write about my brothers, but I could write about me. That’s why my story came out at the end.” As a result, his book took on a deeper dimension.
“One of the biggest revelations in writing the book was that my dad is way stronger than I am,” he continued. “And I never would have known that without this trip.
“I think the point of this book is that my mom and dad, and their mothers and fathers, or anybody who just goes out and tries to slug it out is ‘somebody.'”
Following the conclusion of the family’s motorhome adventure, Mike looked through the extensive tapes the family had filmed during the trip and decided to prepare a series for Today viewers. In 2005 the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association presented him with the Spirit Of America Award in recognition of the four-part series. The segments are captured on a DVD that accompanies the book, along with other fun outtakes and special items.
After learning of Mike’s film and production experience, it’s easy to see why his book flows like a movie. Interestingly, when he landed the book deal, The Walt Disney Company bought the movie rights, with plans to bring The Ride Of Our Lives to the silver screen.
Mike noted that his family has changed a great deal as a result of their month-long journey. “My kids learned a lot about life, about people, about the whole perseverance thing. Stuff went wrong …. we didn’t let the annoyances bother us. Now it’s also interesting because my parents are taking a bow. They’re in the public eye …. When we go to book signings, people have been treating them with a lot of respect.”
“I think it’s made us more aware of how fragile we are and how a little ‘moment’ like that, 30 days together, like any one day, can alter your course a little bit.”
The accident with the Minnie Winnie “wasn’t cool,” Mike said. “But in a sense it was a good symbol, because we kept going. And certainly it didn’t disable us; it kind of shocked us. It made us more careful for the rest of the trip.” And the fact that they continued along in a patched-up vehicle, he added, was akin to the family “moving along with the bumps and bruises showing.”
“I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh, these are just the misadventures of 30 days on the road.'”
“People say to me, ‘Oh, I have an uncle like that,’ or ‘My dad and mom have switched roles; my dad’s the quiet one, my mom’s the talker.'” I keep saying to everybody I talk to, ‘This is everybody’s story. We are you.'”
Today, despite the flurry of promoting the book, Mike lives a peaceful existence in Winnetka, Illinois, with his wife, Cathy. He sometimes tapes part of his Today show segments from his front porch. Wiffle ball is a favorite family activity on the front lawn; even friends like TV’s Bob Costas have been known to drop by for a game. Perhaps it’s Mike’s down-home nature that’s so appealing to Today show viewers “” and to countless folks who have already savored his book.
The Ride Of Our Lives ($24.95) is published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, and is available from bookstores, online booksellers, or the publisher (www.randomhouse.com).