Ben and I got to know Michael through our work at the Livingston County Chamber of Commerce while we were in college at SUNY Geneseo. We were spending time on an initiative to build an international sister region relationship between Livingston County, the Greater Rochester Area and the Eastern Region in Ghana. Michael has been the main bureaucrat representing the City of Rochester during the effort which continues to this day. He has been an instrumental resource in terms of international community development from a political perspective.
Michael’s passion for building an international community is unprecedented. Primarily working as an Engineer for the city, most of his volunteer hours are dedicated to improving and unifying the 11 sister city relationships currently held by the City of Rochester. Meanwhile, in his free time, he plays in an Irish band as well as many other musical groups and dances in a variety of cultural dance troops. It is an honor and a pleasure to feature some of his insights! ~Joseph & the Bigger Impact Team
How did you get your start? Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm in Michigan and my aspiration was to be a science and math teacher. When I was getting out of college there were no teaching jobs. It was in the very early 1970s and things were financially tight. I wound up part time teaching and then landed a job as a bureaucrat for the city manager of Jackson, Michigan.
The guy that they brought to Michigan actually worked in Rochester to help resolve many social and racial issues. So, instead of teaching I was working in city administration; ran an airport, a youth program, and did computer programming.
Then, I went to Syracuse University to learn how to be a bureaucrat in eleven easy months at the Maxwell School. Wound up having an offer from Monroe County to work in their budget office as well as an offer from Greenville, South Carolina. It was roughly the same salary and I knew what the music was in South Carolina and in Rochester, so I naturally took the job in Rochester.
Found some musicians soon and ended up in an Irish band here as well as a Folk Dance Troop. Later came over to work with the city. With my connections to the folk dancing troops, I was asked to organize some international performances for the Lilac Festival. So, I did that over in Highland Park for a few years. That was in and around 1983, just one year before the City of Rochester was celebrating its 150 year anniversary. At that point I did my first work with the Sister Cities Program and helped bring in about 175 international people for Sister Cities’ week.
In 1991, I was invited onto the Board of Sister Cities. Since then, I’ve served on a variety of committees and have helped organize many international festivals. All of these things helped me realize and understand the importance of establishing international connections. All of these rich groups of people make up one rich community.
I grew up in a small white, Catholic town in Michigan where at the family dinner at our church you could count on about four different varieties of meatloaf. And the variety would be in whether they would put ketchup or strips of bacon on top.
So, when I came out here and realized there were about 100 types of bacon and hams and many other wonderful things, it was fantastic. I thought you would have to go to New York City or Chicago to find this type of cultural richness, but it is right here in Rochester.
Instead of becoming a city manager and roaming the country every three to five years, I stayed here with my Irish band and my dancing troops and have become deeply involved with the International Sister Cities Program.
We want to rebuild the strong community connection and know that we can develop the plans to be more ambitious. So, I’ve tried to develop our planning abilities and our ability to make contact with the big funders. I want to help build a unified strength in our Sister Cities program again.
What instruments do you play?
For the Irish music I play the banjo, guitar, and tin whistle. When we’re doing North American music I play harmonicas, harps, and other absurd noise makers. During Bulgarian music I’ll use string instruments like tom bras.
If you could meet any three people, who would they be?
Marcus Aurilius. When you read about his writings on stoicism and his time as a military leader in the Roman Empire and later as an emperor, it makes you wonder how he approached his life…its an immense curiosity to wonder how a man like that might think.
I would like to have met the Science Fiction author, Robert Heinlein. He was an Annapolis graduate and went into the Navy on active duty. Then he was discharged and it broke his heart. But, he was involved in military research as a civilian which kept him connected. Through that time he was writing a lot of the early science fiction. His stories focus on an individual; usually a young man who is in situations where honor, duty, humor, and decency to other human beings are a part of what’s going on. Some of his politics I disagree with greatly, but his strong values I admire. When I grew up it was his books in the library so they had a lot of influence on me.
One thing I always remember about him was his self-proclaimed standard of writing. He writes to a “beer standard,” he would say. “A young man has a weekend night coming up; he can go to the store and buy a six pack of beer or my novel. I have to write well enough so that he buys my novel and not that six-pack.” That observation stuck with me about how to measure accomplishments and success. He was being facetious with that but it is a practical application.
The problem is there are hundreds of others, but who would I like to meet in this moment; who would I like to listen to and hear their thoughts? I would like to sit and have a conversation with a historian, Stavrianos. He wrote a book World Since 1500: A Global History. He wasn’t focused on who was the king and what was this war, but rather the development of nations and cultures; people and how they influenced each other.
What advice would you give to Western New York?
Western New York is one of the key industrial heartlands of the United States, although the industries are changing. The rust belt industries are gone and a lot of the manufacturing we are doing now will be gone. It will not survive. We have to learn to change and to snatch the opportunities. We have to look beyond our immediate communities. We have to reach abroad to be connected with the world.
The Sister Cities Program is one thing that helps build those connections but it also helps provide education to the kids and to give them confidence that they can participate successfully in a global world. Western New York has been historically globally connected and it has to stay that way. It has to reach out and train children in other languages, cultures, religions, and philosophies. They must be taught not to succumb to the fears of challenges. Their teachings need to give them the faith and skills to help them become successful in the outside world.
So, my advice is to develop the skills, philosophies, and institutions to let us be connected internationally and survive.
What is one of your favorite quotes?
“No matter how high or lofty the throne, what sits on it is the same as your own.” – Terry Brooks
What is your favorite place to eat in Rochester?
I go to the Mount Hope Diner or the South Wedge Diner because the food is very good and inexpensive and there are some nice folks there. It’s plain, unpretentious, and comfortable.
What is your favorite place to go in the summer in Rochester?
Highland Park. It's a section of the city that really strikes me. I grew up on a farm so I can't stand the feel of the suburbs. Here in the city there is flavor and variety. I love that.
Michael Leach can be reached at Mike.Leach@cityofrochester.gov.