Leavens on election night

Democratic congressional candidate Bill Leavens of Sharon is surrounded by his wife, Linda, and two of his children as he speaks to supporters on primary election night May 10, 1994. He won the Democratic nomination by a few hundred votes.

For Bill Leavens, life has always been about making a contribution and doing something challenging.

“That’s what has always driven me,” he said last week.

And that’s what drove him in 1994 to take on Phil English for the right to represent northwestern Pennsylvania in Congress.

A dozen years removed from the narrow 2-percentage point loss to English, who has earned six trips to Washington and is seeking a seventh this year, Leavens is still contributing and still campaigning.

For the last two years he has served as a parish manager for a Harrisburg church and is coordinating a fundraising campaign to build a sanctuary. Masses at St. Margaret Mary’s have been held in the attached school’s gymnasium since it was built in 1949 and church members — 1,400 households strong — believe a proper sanctuary is long overdue.

“We’ve been looking at having a church for over 50 years, and we’re finally going to do it,” said Leavens, 49, of Lewisberry, just a stone’s throw from Harrisburg across the Susquehanna River.

Before that, Leavens was the executive director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation. Leavens also spent time as a training director for Special Olympics, conducting programs for coaches throughout the state and nationwide.

Leavens was a 37-year-old Democrat from South Pymatuning Township when he decided to make a run for Congress in 1994. At the time, he was executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce and Shenango Valley Industrial Development Corp.

It was his only campaign, one that was lost by 4,550 votes to the then-38-year-old Erie Republican out of 180,567 that were cast. While it’s unclear how it impacted the race, Delaware Township independent candidate Arthur Drew collected 6,383 votes, although only 785 were from Leavens’ stronghold in Mercer County.

Inevitably, questions are often raised as people take stock of their lives, but Leavens said he has rarely thought about that election and wondered what-if.

“It really doesn’t serve any purpose to look back,” he said.

Besides, he got to watch his four children, ages 14 to 22, grow up. And he wonders how up close that would have been had he won the election.

He vividly recalls one fall night in 1994 that brought all that home. He and his wife Linda watched as their daughter Teri, who was 10 at the time, was waiting for another family to take her to a football game at Sharon.

“Linda and I, instead of taking her to the game, we’re off to Butler to campaign,” Leavens said. “I’ll never forget pausing and thinking something was wrong with this picture.”

He gives people in public office, especially those with families, a lot of credit because he remembers missing many of his kids’ activities during that year. He also remembers many times walking into the house after a day’s work about 5 p.m. and turning right around, telling Linda he’d see her at 11.

In the end, he said the campaign allowed him to treasure his time with his family and to gain a better appreciation of the importance of family.

“Had I won, it wouldn’t have been that way,” he said.

If Leavens does on occasion look back, he said it’s only to recall the experiences he enjoyed and the people he met throughout that grueling year.

And despite the shortcomings presented by the time spent away from his family, Leavens quickly notes that the “experience was absolutely phenomenal, one that I will always treasure.”

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