After he assumed office in January 1961, President John Kennedy tasked a member of his Cabinet to develop a program to address the poverty and hunger he had witnessed during his campaign.
His secretary of agriculture — former Minnesota Gov. Orville Freeman — assigned his top aide, Rod Leonard, to lead the project, which became the Department of Agriculture's Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program.
The program was the first in a series of national policies and programs Leonard helped create during four decades in Washington, D.C.
Leonard died June 13 in Winona, Minn. He was 90.
"Dad was the ultimate staffer," said his daughter Jane Leonard. "He got things done. Gov. Freeman told him to put [WIC] together. He was a pit bull, determined. He was persistent and humble. He kept working on the task."
During the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, Leonard helped develop a food stamp program and create a free and reduced-price school lunch program.
At the end of the Johnson administration, Leonard founded the Community Nutrition Institute (CNI) in Washington, D.C., to advise elected officials on the administration of those new programs. The institute also focused on food safety and food security laws.
When Jimmy Carter was elected president, Leonard worked at the White House in the Consumer Affairs office, focusing on food labeling issues and consumer advocacy.
"Over the years, he worked on so many things," said Jane Leonard. "Things like the dangers of [the artificial sweetener] aspartame and that schools were able to count ketchup as a vegetable in their school lunches."
After the Carter administration, Leonard returned to CNI and worked there until retiring in 1998.
"He was a dear friend," said former Vice President Walter Mondale. "Long after many of us had left Washington, he was still back there working. When we look back at the 1960s and all that was accomplished, it was wonderful. Those liberal causes were his life. He was genuine, warm and thoughtful. He was a wonderful guy."
Leonard was born to Brownie and Muriel Leonard on Dec. 7, 1929, in Eureka, Kan. in the Flint Hills region.
After high school, he earned a degree in economics from Kansas State. He served as an Army infantry corporal during the Korean War.
Leonard used the G.I. Bill to enroll in graduate school in journalism at the University of Minnesota. During his time as an assistant editor at the student newspaper, he met his future wife, Betty Berg, who was the editor of the paper. They were married in 1955.
After graduate school, he worked briefly in corporate media for 3M. After Freeman became governor in 1955, Leonard went to work as the governor's press secretary and liaison to the Legislature. He held those positions during Freeman's three two-year terms as governor and joined Freeman in Washington in 1961.
After leaving Washington in 1998, Leonard and his wife returned to Minnesota and lived on a farm near Wahkon in Mille Lacs County. He continued his advocacy as a member of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy board.
Leonard also wrote two books about Freeman.
In addition to his daughter Jane, who lives in St. Paul, Leonard is survived by another daughter, Karin Sonneman of Winona; a son, John, of Chicago; a brother, Alan of Anaheim, Calif., and three grandchildren. His wife died in 2001.
A celebration of his life will be held later this year.