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HIGH PROFILE: Nancy Clowes Leonhardt learned selflessness at early age

Leonhardt grew up fast. Her experience taught her selflessness, which she used in her land planning and Rotary Club work. by Kimberly Dishongh | May 16, 2021 at 8:42 a.m.
Nancy Leonhardt for High Profile Cover on 05/04/2021 at Wildwood Park.(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Cary Jenkins)

Nancy Leonhardt has not always had everything she needed, but both working and volunteering for nonprofit organizations is her way of helping to make sure other people do.

"I had to grow up real fast. I was an adult long before I should have been an adult," says Leonhardt, executive director at Adult Learning Alliance of Arkansas. "Even when I didn't have anything, I've always tried to help be a part of an organization that helps other people."

The Adult Learning Alliance of Arkansas supports the efforts of about 25 community-based literacy councils to improve the quality of life for adult learners by helping them improve their reading, math and language skills. Mental health issues and learning disabilities are common denominators in the lives of many of the people who seek services through the Adult Learning Alliance of Arkansas, Leonhardt says.

"There are people out there who work and try, but it doesn't always work out, and we just need to help people where we can," she says. "I see that, in all people, the situation they're in is not because they're lazy or didn't want to learn. There are reasons they are the way they are, and we need to help them."

On May 21, the Adult Learning Alliance of Arkansas will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a virtual event. There will be a look back that includes former President Bill Clinton, who formed a commission on adult literacy as governor of Arkansas.

"He's doing a video," says Leonhardt, who has interviewed some of the organization's past leaders for a separate video that will be shared during the event. There will also be awards for tutors and for students who are now among the approximately 100,000 served since the Alliance began.

Outside of work, Leonhardt has served in various positions through Rotary Club. In 2017-2018, she was a district governor of Rotary International District 6150, made up of roughly 1,900 members in 39 Rotary Clubs across central and eastern Arkansas. Since July 2020 she has served as a regional assistant Rotary coordinator, with a focus on engaging existing members and attracting new ones.

VOLUNTEERISM

Leonhardt, soon after graduating from high school and starting her first real job, made cookies to mail to extended family for Christmas. Her efforts were recognized by an aunt, who remarked that she was a giving person. Her grandmother, too, emphasized how important it was for her to help others.

She began volunteering with the Chamber of Commerce and the Soroptimist Club not long after that.

It was through her own sometimes rocky childhood that Leonhardt learned not everyone has the same opportunities, and that empathy has driven her in her career and in her involvement in Rotary.

Leonhardt's parents divorced when she was 5, and she lived with her mother until that was no longer possible.

"My mother struggled," she says.

Her mother, Robin Martin, worked in a low-wage position as a licensed vocational nurse. Their electricity was frequently shut off due to lack of payment.

"In California, you always had a fourth-grade mission project because of all the missions we had there, and I was working on my mission project by candlelight," Leonhardt vividly remembers of one of those occasions. "We had no food in the house. Our next-door neighbor worked for Sunshine Cookies and he always gave us boxes of cookies for free. I was eating the Lemon Cooler because that was all we had."

Leonhardt nurtured her little brother, 18 months younger than she, because her mother's work schedule and mental health issues sometimes made her an unreliable caregiver.

"It got really bad for mother, so I had to go live with my father when I was 10 years old," she says.

There was friction between Leonhardt and her stepmother.

"I was too much of a mother to my brother," she says.

DIFFERENT WORLDS

Her father, Ross Clowes, was firmly middle class, she says. She often visited her paternal grandparents, who were wealthy -- and not just by comparison.

"I saw it, from the poor to the middle class to wealth. I was exposed to all levels," she says. "I would have dinner with my grandparents and we would be at dinner parties where caviar was being passed around and holidays were always spent at the country club, and they traveled all over the world and I always got trinkets when they came back from their adventures."

When she was 13, she moved back in with her mother.

"I essentially spent my high school years taking care of her. She was bipolar, I think," Leonhardt says.

They moved from Stockton, Calif., to Redlands, Calif., in the southern part of the state, between Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

"She was in and out of the mental ward at a hospital about 30 minutes away and, unfortunately, oftentimes I would walk home from school and there would be an ambulance at our apartment complex, and I would know that she had tried to take her life and that the next few months I would be traveling back and forth to the mental hospital to visit her," Leonhardt says. "That's kind of what my life was like, all through high school."

That felt interminable at times, but the end did come, just after Leonhardt moved out of their home.

"After I graduated from high school, God decided she needed to stop suffering," Leonhardt says. "I lost her when I was 19."

BACK TO SCHOOL

Leonhardt met her husband, Darrell Leonhardt, when she was 21. She hadn't had the means to go to college before that, but after they married she went back to school. She completed her undergraduate degree at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Calif., in 1986.

She had wanted to be an architect, but she disliked the math architecture required and turned her sights on urban regional land planning.

"I fell in love with it," she says. "An architect looks at a particular building or house, but regional planning is much broader, and I liked that we would do developments and so forth that didn't focus on one building. A whole neighborhood we would develop and look at how that fit into the community, so I really liked that aspect, and I also liked the historical preservation aspect."

She worked as a consultant in that field after her first child was born. While she was on maternity leave after the birth of her second child, her father committed suicide. His father -- her grandfather -- had also committed suicide, as had his great aunt.

"Even though he and my mom had divorced when I was a child, they both were on similar paths with mental health issues," Leonhardt says. "When he passed away, that's when I stopped working to raise my children. Family was important to me, but it became more important, that need to be home with my children."

She started a part-time job with a nonprofit organization instead, taking on a flexible schedule that allowed her to work from home with her children. Her job with the Inland California Chapter of the American Institute of Architects gave her a chance to be a part of the design world, and she enjoyed it for seven years, until 1996.

That was the year she and her husband, partly because of rising costs of living in California, decided to move to Wausau, Wis.

"All the influences from L.A. started to come inland where we lived, and I just really didn't want to raise the kids in that environment," she says.

In 1999, Darrell Leonhardt took a job as senior vice president and chief information officer at Arkansas Children's Hospital and they moved to Little Rock.

Nancy Leonhardt had volunteered in her children's school in California and in Wisconsin, and when she moved to Little Rock she signed up to help the parent-teacher foundation at her children's school, Little Rock Christian Academy. After her son graduated in 2006, she went to work in development at Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

"I'm not a good development person," Leonhardt insists. "I don't like to ask people for money."

After two years in that position, she approached her boss.

"I said, 'This is probably not something most employees say, but I am not good at this job, and I think it's time to bring in somebody who can do better,'" Leonhardt says.

She was, however, strong in detail and organization, having organized Arkansas Advocates' Soup Sunday fundraiser each year and having served also as executive director of the Arkansas Flower and Garden Show for couple of years as well. Her boss created a new administrative director position for her, playing to her strengths, and she held that for about five years.

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Jennifer Ferguson, deputy director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, says she forwarded the job description for the executive director of the Adult Learning Alliance to Leonhardt.

"Of course I didn't want to lose Nancy at Arkansas Advocates but by then her kids had gone to college and she had worked for us for seven or eight years and she was ready for a different challenge," Ferguson says. "She definitely had the skill set to be an executive director, but more importantly I just knew that adult literacy was something she would be really passionate about."

Leonhardt stepped in to help when Ferguson was out of the office following the birth of her first child and picked up some of her responsibilities after she came back as a new mother as well.

They became close friends over the years, and Leonhardt still brings birthday gifts to Ferguson's children, now 10 and 12, each year and picks them up for cookie-baking sessions at her house during each Christmas season.

Ferguson has taken parenting inspiration from Leonhardt over the years, noting that the Leonhardts took long road trips to visit every state while their children were growing up, and that they still have family game nights when they all get together. Leonhardt's son, Jason, lives in Houston. Her daughter, Christy, lives in Little Rock.

"It was very hard for me to lose her and I still miss not being able to work with her every day," Ferguson says of Leonhardt's taking the job at the Alliance.

ROTARY CLUB

Shortly after Leonhardt began work as development director at Arkansas Advocates, she and Ferguson had lunch at Jimmy's Serious Sandwiches with a development director from another organization. Among other bits of advice on how to get started, that other development director suggested that Leonhardt join the Rotary.

"Little did I know from that conversation that she would end up serving as district governor," Ferguson says.

Leonhardt had, in fact, wanted to be a Rotarian since she worked for the American Institute of Architects in California right after college.

Back then, memberships for women were off limits.

"I always went to Rotary Clubs as a guest but I could never join," she says. "That's always been in my heart, that this is an organization I'd love to be a part of. I love their motto, 'Service above self,' because that's how I was raised."

John Carter, also a past Rotary district governor, says he is impressed by Leonhardt's Rotary successes.

"We're best friends; I love her personality," he says. "She's a very accomplished person."

Carter is a member of the Rotary Club of Sherwood, and that club just started a new satellite club with a focus on helping animals.

"We started that club based on suggestions that Nancy gave our president," he says. "Now we have 11 new members to help with our projects."

A few years ago, Carter says, Leonhardt helped kick off an after-hours Rotary Club that was to be a satellite of the West Little Rock Rotary Club, where she is a member. There were 49 members when the club was ready for a charter, however, and thus it became a Rotary Club instead of a satellite.

"Now there are over 60 members, I believe," he says. "And it's in west Little Rock, which was an area we weren't serving very well."

Before officially assuming the role of district governor in 2017, Leonhardt attended an international assembly to train with district governors from 537 other districts around the world.

"We would sit at tables for meals with people from anywhere and everywhere," she says. "I got to meet all these people and connect with them and hear about where they're from -- Australia, Africa, India, Pakistan, China, New Zealand, you name it. It was just incredible. But even going around to Rotary Clubs in our district I've met some wonderful Rotarians that will be my friends for the rest of my life."

The reward for her hard work in Rotary, she says, is meeting Rotarians and seeing the work they are doing. Her job, too, is rewarding.

"Back when I would tutor children in schools before I started working full-time, I realized that as a tutor you get more out of it, knowing that you're helping somebody achieve their goals, than what the student gets," she says.

Leonhardt remains close with her brother, Steven Clowes, who lives in Colorado.

"My brother and I beat the odds of our family legacy, and I'm grateful for that," she says.

She is open about the mental health issues that have plagued her family, in part as a safeguard.

"I've wanted to make sure that everybody close to me, that my friends know about it, so that if they start to see changes in me and I say, 'Oh, no, I'm fine. I'm just having a bad day,' they can say, 'No, Nancy, there's this thing that's been going on for a while.' I've told them that since they know, if they see those changes in me, even if they have to drag me by my hair, they need to take me to a doctor."

Spare time is sparse between her work and Rotary obligations, but Leonhardt tries to find time to garden, read and do needlepoint.

"I am very careful about self-care, just because so much is going on and I want to be healthy," she says.

The crises that marred her childhood were not circumstances she would have chosen, but she has seen positives arise from her adaptations to it. Caring for her mother when she was still a child herself is likely not something she would have chosen.

"But I needed to, and I'm glad I did," she says. "I learned so much and it just helped shape who I am today, and I'm thankful for that."

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