Late at night, when Emil Leach sinks into the relaxed cocoon of his easy chair, his unchecked thoughts wander to his daughter, Diane.
Quietly, he thanks God that a month shy of his 83rd birthday, he remains an industrious man — a guy seldom left alone with his thoughts for too long.
“The pain is there every single day,” said Leach, a beloved fixture in the Kenton Ridge High School softball program. “So many people are willing to help, but there’s nothing they can do for you.
“So you keep busy. You’ve got to have something to do. Something to look forward to. Something to occupy your mind. If you sit in a chair, it just keeps coming back, and it goes on and on and on.”
Diane Leach, 57, the fourth of Emil’s seven children, passed away unexpectedly at the home of her mother, Jeanette Burks, on Thanksgiving morning, after a trip to the hospital and complaints of shortness of breath.
“They’d discharged her the day before, against her mother’s wishes,” Leach said. “The autopsy said she died of natural causes and carcinoma of unknown origin.
“She’d had breast cancer earlier in her life. Went through all the treatments. Lost her hair and grew it all back. The night before she died she was asked how she was feeling. She said, ‘I’m holding my own.’ “
Employed by the National Trail Parks and Recreation District, Diane Leach managed Clark County’s youth and adult recreation programs for 30 years. It was the only job she ever had and the only work she ever loved.
“All the parents of all the girls who’ve played sports throughout the years came to Diane’s visitation at Jackson-Lytle,” Leach said. “The parking lot was full for two hours.”
Reminders of Diane’s absence are everywhere.
“I go to a ballgame at Lagonda and she’s not there. So I just stay away,” Leach said. “I drive past the (Eagle City Road) soccer fields and I get a bad feeling, so I go a different way.”
In traveling new roads, Leach hopes to forge a new path, and “thank God I keep busy with softball and basketball, and that my wife (Alice) is so understanding.”
During Leach’s season of sorrow, Springfield’s sporting community has risen to help carry the weight, using private donations to create a downtown memory garden in Diane’s honor.
The idea came from National Trail Parks and Recreation Department horticulturist Steve Hawkins, and the flowers that now bloom off Cliff Park Drive, just north of the firehouse, are lovingly maintained by her family and friends.
“I go there a lot,” Leach said softly. “As time goes on, you like to think she’s in a better place. (That garden) has been a blessing to me.”
In 22 years with the KR softball program, Leach has never missed a game, giving all he’s had to the Cougar athletes and coaches he calls family.
“He always brings us a cooler of ice and drinks, and he buys it all with his own money,” said senior left fielder Elysa Mathews. “He’s so encouraging. He’s always the first person to give us a high-five or a hug. We’d definitely be lost without him.”
Clearly, all the love, care and devotion that Leach has pumped into the program is being returned to him, tenfold, now.
“Emil’s kind of like a dad figure for our team, even though he’s a little old to be our dad,” senior Brooke Sizemore said. “He’s always got our back. He’s like the heart of our team. He’s just so caring and genuine with everyone.”
An old-school believer in hard work without complaint, Leach dispenses stories and life lessons by blending no-excuses discipline with bear hugs and pats on the back.
His buck-stops-here seriousness is often tamed by a crusty sense of humor that keeps players happy, relaxed and in-line.
“He gets us in practice all the time,” said senior second baseman Monika Foster. “I mean, everything he says and does makes me laugh.”
So valued is Leach that when Diane’s memorial garden was dedicated on her birthday, May 25, school officials changed the start time of the Western Brown tournament game, allowing him to attend.
“This season, these coaches and these girls — it’s all been a blessing to me. It really has,” Leach said, fighting back tears. “You know, (Cougar basketball coach) Ed (Foulk) brought the whole team to the funeral home, and those things just carry you.
“I go visit Diane’s grave and I don’t shed tears now. But I used to. Couldn’t hardly stand it,” he added.
Leach continues to heal, in part because his team isn’t letting him down. He’s discovered he needs these state-bound Cougars just as much as they need him.
“Every year, I say, ‘Now, when this group graduates, I’m outta here,’ ” Leach said. “Then there’s another good group, and another, and I just fall in love with them I guess.”
A former umpire, Leach’s affection for softball stretches to 1949, when he roamed the outfield for Tremont and Enon Sand & Gravel during Springfield’s blue-collar, men’s fast-pitch hey-day.
“I couldn’t hit, but I could bunt and run like hell,” Leach said, laughing. “I’m not as fast as (Learic) Kinser is, though. These girls — I know they think I’m older than Moses.”
“Emil’s pretty much the rock of our team,” said KR softball coach Sarah Ivory, whose third-ranked Cougars (30-2) face sixth-ranked Granville (24-6) in a D-II state semifinal at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Akron’s Firestone Stadium.
“I don’t even fill out the lineup card. I just sign it. I joke with him about running the show, but he kind of does. He’s invaluable to me.”
Leach, a one-time Army man whose marriage to second wife Alice has lasted 36 years, chuckled at the notion of being indispensable.
“You don’t know I’m doing things except when I’m not there,” he quipped.
Perpetually armed with a smile and a joke, Leach has befriended the KR basketball program since 1997. He’s missed one game.
“Girl for girl, overall, this is the best softball team we’ve ever had,” Leach said — high praise from a guy who’s been around long enough to know.
“We’ve had a bunch of free meals already. Olive Garden fed us. Kroger’s provided us with a big cake. Donatos gave us a bunch of pizzas.
“My wife says if we keep winning, she won’t have to cook. This season’s been a blessing. It really, really has.”