Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard with his wife, Karen, and twin daughters Conor and Lauren
Nature or nurture?
It’s a question that has been long debated among psychologists. Some believe a person’s character is determined by innate biological factors, i.e., genetics. Others suggest that upbringing and life experience play a much more critical role in shaping human development from child to adulthood.
Ask Karl and Karen Leonard about their five daughters and they’ll say it probably was a healthy mix of both.
The Leonards, who both grew up in military families, met in 1990 while both were serving in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserves during Operation Desert Storm. They married, settled in Chesterfield and raised a family while carving out rewarding careers in public service.
Karen still works for the Chesterfield Police Department as its records administrator. Following his retirement as a police officer, Karl moved over to work under late Sheriff Dennis Proffitt, then won a special election to succeed him in 2014 and has since been re-elected three times.
With role models like that, it’s perhaps not surprising that each of the Leonards’ daughters also pursued professions oriented around the notion of helping others.
The oldest three – Ashley Knoell, Megan Henderson and Alexandra Coglio -- all are employed in the medical field. Then there are the identical twins, Conor Clark and Lauren Leonard, who currently work for Chesterfield as a sheriff’s deputy and emergency communications officer, respectively.
“We were intentional about not trying to direct them one way or the other. We wanted them to find out what they loved and follow that,” Karl said. “But we might have guided them down this path just by example.”
Because of the twins’ career choices, three total strangers are alive today.
Clark, an eight-year veteran of the sheriff’s department, received her first Life Save Award two years ago. The second came in April of this year, when she was the first responder to a 9-1-1 call and found a male unconscious in the back seat of a vehicle. He wasn’t breathing, had no pulse and his skin was cold to the touch.
“It’s really scary being absolutely alone with someone’s life in your hands,” she recalled. “That’s when your training kicks in.”
After assessing the patient, speaking with a family member and determining it was a drug overdose, Clark administered a dose of Narcan and began performing chest compressions in an attempt to restore his heart rhythm. When he remained unresponsive, she gave him a second dose of Narcan and he began breathing again.
“To see somebody dead like that, and you have to bring them back? That’s crazy. It’s bringing somebody back from another realm. That shouldn’t be possible,” Clark said.
“It’s a feeling not a lot of people get to experience in their lifetime,” she added. “It was phenomenal. I didn’t need recognition for it – the fact that someone got to see another day was enough for me -- but it was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
Lauren Leonard, who began working for the county’s Emergency Communications Center (ECC) last year following a stint in the Coast Guard, received her first Life Save Award along with Chesterfield Police Department officers Shelby Morris and James Spada at last month’s Fire and EMS Promotional and Awards ceremony.
In July, Leonard fielded a 9-1-1 call from a female who reported that her house was rapidly filling with smoke. After dispatching fire and police units, she stayed on the phone with the woman, walked her through steps to keep the smoke out of her bedroom as much as possible, then obtained her location in the house so she could relay that information to first responders.
“She was so calm, I had no idea how bad the situation was,” Leonard said. “It turns out the whole house was engulfed in flames.”
Officer Spada arrived on the scene first and entered the woman’s bedroom by breaking a window with his baton. The smoke was so thick in the room, he couldn’t see her even though she was standing right beside her. She was transported to the hospital and treated in the intensive care unit, but has since recovered.
“They said getting her exact location was critical because if it had taken one minute more to get her out of the house, there would have been a devastating outcome,” Leonard said. “That’s by far the hardest part of the job – sometimes we listen to people die on the phone. We have calls where you’ve given them everything you can, and all you can do is sit there and provide a reassuring voice.”
At the same time, she acknowledged experiencing “imposter syndrome” after being recognized for “just doing what they train us to do.”
“I wish I could break the award into a bunch of pieces because it really was a group effort,” she said. “Everybody [in the ECC] was tuned in ... I was just the voice on the line.”
Noting he hasn’t received a Life Save Award over the course of a 42-year career in public safety, Sheriff Leonard joked that his daughters “have eclipsed me already.”
He wasn’t surprised, though, that both Conor and Lauren felt uncomfortable about accepting the awards.
“One of the most common traits of first responders is humility. People who go into public service aren’t in it for recognition or a paycheck; they do it because they want to help people,” he said.
As parents of five girls, Karen and Karl were mutually determined to raise them to become strong, independent, thick-skinned women who would never have to depend on anyone else in adulthood. Whether it was school, Girl Scouts, sports or jobs, they were expected to put forth their best effort. Hanging out on the couch all day watching TV was firmly discouraged.
“Somehow or another, we got great kids out of it,” Karen said. “In parenting, you lay the foundation and hope they take the right path. We’re very lucky they did.
“I’m still amazed that everybody turned out OK: happy, healthy and leading productive lives,” she added. “We have been blessed in so many ways. I could not be prouder of all of our girls.”