Remembering Sandi Leckie

Sandra Gail Bowles was a child of the Parkdale neighborhood of Toronto, back in the austere post-World War II era, before Parkdale became the current hipsters’ paradise. When Sandra was growing up, it was a self-contained village within a city, where residents paid rent, walked to their jobs at the Cadbury chocolate factory or the National Cash Register plant, and worshipped among the Group of Seven paintings, murals and sculptures in St. Anne’s Church. Local fellows sometimes drank Dow beer and smoked Black Cat Number Sevens in the Gladstone or Drake hotels, which was regarded as an unwholesome activity for a workingman. Wives stayed home. Pineapple-upside-down cake was a delicacy; Wilson’s ginger ale at the Woolworth’s counter was a treat. It was a monochromatic childhood, set to Percy Faith music on CBC radio. 1507bf6

Sandra’s father worked for City Hall, as a safety inspector of the children’s rides at the nearby Canadian National Exhibition grounds. His daughter, an only child, became very popular with the neighborhood girls and boys for brief periods, when the prospect of accompanying Sandra for a free ride on the Flyer roller coaster was re-introduced at the end of each summer.

She finished high school and studied nursing at Women’s College Hospital, an 18-minute streetcar ride to somewhere culturally remote from where she grew up. She graduated in 1967, Canada’s Centennial year and the Summer of Yorkville Village, an approximation of Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village. The blocks surrounding Women’s College were not much like Parkdale, and had storefronts with signs that said The Colonnade, the Mynah Bird, the Penny Farthing, the Wreck Room discotheque, and the “elegant new” Sutton Place hotel.

flyer_bmid80sAround that time, Sandra became Sandi, with an “i.” Married a man named Leckie, and they both quickly knew it wasn’t going to work out.

Left nursing — a job that will always wear you down, now as then — and took a sales position in the pharma business. She was good at it, in the way that trained nurses will apply their organizational skills and sense of humane purpose to tasks. Worked her way through the 1970s and early 1980s from bag-carrying positions at Parke-Davis into product management at Purdue-Frederick. Learned a bunch of things, including patient support programs, formulary and government stuff, career-survival during an era when women in the workplace were still being accepted by the old boys with bemused skepticism, or far worse. Out of the many duties a product manager might need to fulfill, Sandi really came to life when presented with responsibilities for advertising and marketing drugs. It matched her creative streak.

She took that talent and put it to work as an executive in the healthcare advertising business, with Terry Johnson, Rick Billinghurst and Dave Lindley at LBJ Advertising, and with Phil Diamond at Diamond Strategic Advertising. She might have been a model for several, if not all, of the characters in the “Mad Men” TV drama. She thrived in the work-hard/play-hard ethos of the ad biz, and elevated her peers through her unique attributes. She had been a good nurse because she was smart, diligent and empathic; she became a great healthcare marketer in part because she had been a good nurse.

In an environment where talent is capital, where outsized egos and personalities are a given, there were no surprises when Sandi determined she could create and run her own marketing company. She called it SpotLight Consulting, which will tell you something. Integrating her initials into the name made it clear who was in charge, but she balked at making the company eponymous. Sagely, the spotlight was reserved for making others look good.

SpotLight was an outstanding success in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sandi became known around Toronto as the go-to person for marketing services, physician relations work, research projects, and the just-discovered universe of continuing medical education programs. She earned a reputation for instantly getting it, for offering creative enhancements, for delivering and then standing back to let the client take all credit for the success. One meaningful validation: Even her former employers made use of her new company for assignments, frequently on a private-label basis. Clients required her help in exotic European and American destinations, wherever medical meetings took place.

She did well enough at SpotLight to pay for a new townhouse in a quiet and orderly suburban neighborhood that might have been regarded as the anti-Parkdale. She gardened all spring and summer, began to plan Christmas decorations as soon as the fall flowers died, kept immaculate care of her home, planned and threw great parties in living color, set to Neil Diamond music on an expensive sound system.

However, many of the traits that made Sandi a superb person and businessperson could also be regarded as limitations. She was loyal in relationships, fiercely so, and in the commercial world this is not always reciprocal. She was unhesitatingly generous, and some took  advantage. She enjoyed working with and for her friends, and a couple of times disappointment resulted. She worked hard to be positive and encouraging (there, again, was that white-uniform training), and several may have chosen to take that optimistic reflex the wrong way, as something to be answered with cruelty. Her focus was on her clients, and not on her T2 Corporation Income Tax Return, and the thing is, you need to watch both.

SpotLight wound down around 2005, which was a painful process for Sandi, yet, paradoxically, a wonderful thing for one company, Chronicle, where she stepped into the role as Sales and Marketing Director. The benefit was twofold: she was a valuable resource to clients, and the Chronicle people also got to work with and learn from Leckie every day.

“I’m not young,” she warned on her first day in the new job.

“You aren’t old,” someone replied.

“That’s true,” she nodded, the nurse taking note of a clinical fact.

So, this is what the Chronicle people learned from the gift of spending time with her during the ensuing decade.

  1. Be interested in people. Learn the name of the person who sells you your lottery ticket, and tell him your name. Find something you have in common.
  2. While you’re at it, you might as well be kind. It takes less energy to be positive and helpful then it does to be an asshole, and occasionally something good might result.
  3. It’s okay to love your work, to be good at it, to be smart and to take things seriously, especially if none of that stuff is fashionable. Look at it as a sneaky way of being a rebel.
  4. The main thing is: Always be professional, because, you see, there isn’t any other way to be.

There were other instructions, naturally, but those all things fall under the categories of Business Strategies and Tactics, or Undergraduate Biology, or Stuff Already Described in Textbooks and on Websites. Leckie’s forte was well beyond any of those things. It will sound exaggerated, but she knew how to make policemen and authority figures disappear, just by smiling. Whoever did that? How was it even possible?

What was seldom obvious about her was how much of an effort it sometimes took for Leckie to be Leckie.

Remembering other people’s children’s birthdays and favorite meals, and being available to hear about other people’s bad day at the office, and spending money on little presents for those who might wonder why they were receiving gifts, all came at a personal price. She would recharge on a weekend at her friends Tom and Susan’s place in Muskoka, or for a couple of weeks in a rental apartment in Florida, or on an afternoon with a book in a folding chair at Cherry Beach. But it could not have been easy being Leckie 24/7, and it wasn’t. Through her most productive years, she found enjoyment in slot machines, and a glass of wine, and a cigarette to go along. That, too, was Leckie, though not the version of which she was most proud.

That Better Leckie was fascinated by everyday things, exhibiting both childlike wonder and adult charm.

She knew the charm was a magical commodity, but minimized it as her just need to “be terribly entertaining.” She beat the drinking, with courage, and for eight years helped a wide circle of people in her A.A. community. In the end, it was the cigarettes that got her, that stress-relief habit acquired back in nursing school. She died of lung cancer on August 14. A memorial will be held on November 8 from 1 to 4 pm, at the Florida Room of the Estates of Sunnybrook in Toronto. A fund is being established in her memory to enable children with severe skin diseases to attend a summer camp, Camp Liberte. If you’d care to contribute, please write to: health@chronicle.org.

It will astonish no one who knew her that she worked to her final day to plan every element, every last detail of her own memorial event, because it meant everything to her to think that her friends would be happy and think well of her.

Well, of course, she did. Of course, she did.

Of course, Sandi Leckie would.

 

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