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Heroic act as young cop defines Christmas 50 years later

George Leonard was a policeman for 22 years in New Jersey.

You name it, he did it. Did it proudly, too.

Started youth programs.

Worked undercover narcotics.

Assisted needy families.

“I always wanted to help other people,” said the 71-year-old Union City, N.J., native and Bradenton retiree. “Be there for kids like I was raised. Help them get through life.”

Or even help save a precious life.

Leonard did that almost 50 years ago.

How appropriate for Christmas.

“It was a miracle,” he said, sifting through old newspaper accounts, yellowed with age, of what happened Dec. 23, 1962.

“People use the word hero a lot,” said Joan Gates, a Tampa executive and the elder of Leonard’s two daughters. “But he is what a hero should be.”

It was a Sunday and the rookie Saddle River patrolman was directing traffic outside St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church before 9:30 a.m. Mass in sub-freezing temperatures.

Immediately afterward, Leonard decided to drive back to town hall for salt and sand.

“It was like the man upstairs told me to do it,” he said.

Not far from the church, the young policeman spotted an object on the side of the road that might be a traffic hazard and pulled over to remove it.

Leonard thought it was trash.

Far from it.

“It was a woman’s overcoat and when I took it off the snowbank, there was a basket underneath it. I’m like, what’s this doing here?” Leonard said. “There was a cloth over the basket, too, so I took that off. I said to myself, what’s a doll doing here?

“Oh, my God! Its a baby!”

Leonard’s heart started to go 90 mph, he said.

He knew this was a matter of life or death.

Yet there was another reason his heart was racing.

Leonard had been an orphan.

“To find someone like that, being abandoned, brought back memories of me being in an orphanage all my life,” he said. “It gave me a deep feeling. I was put there to save that child so she would live and not freeze to death on the side of the road.”

Leonard wrapped up the baby, placed it in his squad car, cranked up the heater, rubbed his hands together and began massaging her.

“I didn’t know if it was a boy or girl, just that it was turning purple and still had the umbilical cord,” he said. “I had to do something fast.”

Leonard ended up whisking her to The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J., picking up another policeman along the way.

“I handed him the baby and told him to rub it lightly while I concentrated on driving,” he said. “It took about 20 minutes because the roads were icy and had a lot of curves, so I couldn’t go very fast. It seemed like forever to get there.”

Once they reached the hospital, the other policeman ran in with the baby.

Leonard never saw the infant again.

Hospital officials estimated the baby, a girl, was two hours old when found by the young policeman.

Though the mother was never located, the infant made a full recovery.

Nurses named her Merry Christmas.

“I checked back in a couple of days and was told she’d been adopted,” Leonard said. “I still wonder what happened to her from time to time. Especially at Christmas.”

So do his daughters.

It’s part of Leonard’s legacy.

“What he did defines Christmas for my sister and I,” said Jennifer Leonard, an FBI unit chief/special agent in Washington, D.C. “It defines my father, too. Growing up, when you said you were George Leonard’s daughter, everybody knew what that meant. It made you pretty proud.

“That’s the man he was. The way he carried himself. He had a sense of honor and duty he lived by.”

“He raised us to always do the right thing,” Joan Gates said.

It was a byproduct of 18 years in orphanages run by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

“It was a lonely life, because you didn’t have a normal family type situation,” said Leonard, who had three siblings.

“But I learned respect and responsibility. Those were big things that taught me to help other people and why I became a policeman.”

It never meant more than it did that cold Sunday morning 49 years ago.

“I was part of that child’s life as a police officer doing my duty,” he said. “It’s a joyful thing I was there. To save that child’s life, that was a Christmas present for me.”

And an everlasting gift for a baby girl.

Mannix About Manatee, by columnist Vin Mannix, is about people and issues in Manatee County. Please call Vin Mannix at 941-745-7055, write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification purposes.

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