Appeared in The Winnetka Current Daily, February 24, 2020
By Holly Marihugh, Contributing Columnist
Mike Leonard will be featured as the guest speaker at Winnetka Historical Society’s Spring Event from 6-8:30 p.m. April 6 at Community House Winnetka.
Even though he created stories all over the U.S. and in many places dotting the globe, former NBC television journalist Mike Leonard relished broadcasting from his house on Pine Street.
“I did so many stories out of my house for the ‘Today Show,’” Leonard says about his 32-year tenure with the media company. “There was a series of live shots from my front porch. I’d say, ‘Mike Leonard, NBC News, Winnetka, Illinois.’” (When repeating his mock sign-off, Leonard instantly adopts his signature warm baritone TV voice that contains notes of his Irish ancestors.)
Leonard, his wife Cathy and four children moved to their white clapboard house on Pine around 1984. He says, “Even though I was born in New Jersey, grew up in Glencoe, and lived in Arizona, I feel that this is my town.”
One of the reasons he feels so at home here has to do with wiffle ball. Every Sunday, spring through fall for more than two decades, Leonard sets up a Wiffle Ball Stadium in his own front yard. The idea for it sparked when youngest child, Brendan, turned 13, and father and son played a loose game of catch out front.
As more friends, relatives, and neighbors joined in, the family added a fence and then flashed a remote-controlled scoreboard.
Sportscaster Bob Costas, Leonard’s friend and former colleague, has even stepped up to the plate on the wiffle ball green.
“The times he comes here, Bob sort of announces,” Leonard said. “He does it in kind of a funny way. The next day (after a game) some woman I knew said, ‘I saw you guys playing yesterday. Tell one of your friends that he sounds just like the host from the Olympics.’”
The front yard games on Pine Street aren’t really about scoring and winning though.
“People think I’m a wiffle ball fanatic,” Leonard said. “I’m not. It’s just that it gets us together.”
Being welcoming by having an open-door policy also has led strangers to knock on the family’s door. When he was 19, Brendan scored a gig with ABC Family that was broadcast from the Leonard house.
“It was about giving a 19-year-old kid freedom to do what he wants on a TV show,” said Leonard, now 36, married with two children. “It was a really popular show with a lot of kids. After it started airing, people started showing up here. This is a friendly house and a friendly place.”
Fans who wanted to shake Brendan’s hand came from British Columbia, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Boston, Mass.
“When those people came to Winnetka, I would show them around, and we’d see the ‘Home Alone’ house,” Leonard said.
He believes the way Winnetka is depicted in the movie is still a lot like the actual village.
Winnetka’s also the kind of town with sidewalks where Leonard can mull over stories he’s writing. Even though he’s retired from NBC, Leonard produces documentaries through “inCommon,” a public television and online series.
“I work out of my house in blue jeans and a T-shirt,” Leonard said. “People see me walking around at 2 p.m. in the afternoon and think, ‘That dude doesn’t work.’ I’ll be walking and have a little legal pad and pen in the summer. People look at me and think, ‘Is he some kind of surveyor?’”
It’s the friendliness part of Winnetka’s character that really makes Leonard feel at ease after living here for 36 years.
“Every single day I walk through town,” he said. “I feel so comfortable that I want everyone around the country to know where I live.”
Learn more about the April 6 Mike Leonard event by visiting winnetkahistory.org.
Back in the Day is a monthly column by The Winnetka Historical Society.