My best friend Bill Leaf would have turned 40 this weekend. Every year I post the story of what happened to him, and the eulogy I gave at his funeral. This year, I thought I would turn it into a podcast, and add in some thoughts from those that knew Bill very well. Happy Birthday Buddy.
(00:12) Meet Bill
(00:32) The Story
(19:19) My Eulogy for Bill
(25:52) Jay Kivela
(26:49) Julie Leaf
(28:16) Brian Drake
(32:10) Bill's Shoutout from his favorite artist Bret Michaels
(33:36) Matt DelSignore
(35:00) Professor John Nicholson
(35:47) Maria Leaf
(40:08) Final Words from Bill himself
(41:16) Closing Thoughts
I’ve posted this the last few years, and will continue to do so each year. I ask that you take some time and read this. It’s an intensely personal story, but if it sways just one person from drinking and driving, it serves its purpose. Moreover, I feel it necessary to post this every year because I don’t ever want to forget a single detail. If I’ve become friends with you in the last year, and you haven’t seen this, buckle up.
I am going to tell you about the week my best friend was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
Saturday night, January 7th, 2006… I was doing my radio gig for what was then Club Rave in Saint Albans, Vermont. It had been a pretty good night, despite the fact that my wingman Brett and I had to TiVo the football game. It was about 2:15am, and Brett was helping me take down the radio station banners. I remarked to Brett about how much we needed to get Bill Leaf up there – the self-professed “King of One Liners” would have owned that bar that night. I’d been trying to get Bill up to Vermont for a visit for years. When he was finally about to come, his dad was stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and he was soon spending most of his free time in a hospital room with his old man.
Right around the time I was musing about Bill to Brett, Bill was on his way to WSYR radio, where he worked in Syracuse. He’d spent the evening with his buddy Brian, and wanted to do some reading up on the following day’s Giants-Panthers NFL playoff game. Problem was he only had dial-up Internet at the house (this was 2006), so he was headed to the station to make use of the faster connection. Funny how these things work. What if he’d gotten in the car 30 seconds earlier, or later? What if the Giants had instead played a Saturday game that weekend? The “what if’s” are endless.
But as fate would have it, shortly after 2am, Bill was headed south on Interstate 81 in Syracuse, right under the Court Street overpass. Shortly before that, a very drunk Matthew Benedict, after being over served at two downtown bars, got into his mom’s F-150. He had no license, due to previous convictions for drunk driving. Benedict was so wasted, that he went UP the off ramp, and entered highway on the wrong side. He was headed northbound, in the southbound lanes.
As Bill rounded the corner at Court St in his little black Pontiac, he must have seen the headlights of the truck approaching him. Bill swerved, but didn’t have enough time to re-act. He was hit head-on. We assume (and can only hope) that the impact was so sudden, that he was killed on the spot. He never had a chance; we at least hope he didn’t suffer. People on the scene tell me it was quick, mercifully.
Oblivious to all of this, 300 miles away, Brett and I grabbed some food at Price Chopper, and settled in to skim the Patriots’ annihilation of the Jaguars on the TiVo. By the time we wrapped up and headed to bed, it was after 5am. My cell battery was nearly dead, so I turned my phone off (which I NEVER, ever do, and haven’t done since).
At about 8:30am, my apartment phone rang. “F****** telemarketers,” I thought. After all, everyone I knew called my cell – nobody calls the house. I rolled over and let the machine pick up.
“Jon? Hey, It’s Maria Leaf, Bill’s sister. I need you to call me as soon as you get this message…..”
I jumped out of bed and grabbed the phone, still groggy, “Maria, hey, what’s goin on?”
“I’m afraid I have some really terrible news.”
Now at this point, the only logical assumption was that her father, Bill senior, had passed away. The man had been in deteriorating health for quite some time. So even when Maria said “My brother was hit and killed by a drunk driver last night,” my brain heard “My dad died.” After a second or two, I realized that wasn’t what Maria said.
She repeated it.
“Oh my….oh my god….I’m so sorry…..”
Maria, always the level headed one, continued. “I really hate to ask you to do this, but can you start letting all the Syracuse people know? I’m on the road driving up from DC, and I don’t really have anyone’s number.”
“Yeah….yeah….sure, no problem.”
I hung up and stumbled down the stairs, to where Brett was asleep on the couch. When he heard me come down, he sat up with a look that said, “What the @#$% are you doing up? We went to bed 3 hours ago.”
I managed to spit out the sentence, “Bill Leaf was killed by a drunk driver last night.”
“Oh my god.”
“Yeah, I’m uh…gonna go back upstairs and start making some phone calls.”
I turned on my cell, and there were two voicemails, from 6am and later. One was from my good friend Matt DelSignore, who had worked with Bill at WSYR. “Hey Jag, it’s Matt. Call me when you get this. It’s important.” The other voicemail was far worse. It was from Kim, Bill’s on-and-off again girlfriend of the last 8 years, and essentially, his best friend. I don’t even remember what she said, but she was bawling in the message.
The next hours are a blur. I don’t remember who I called and in what order. I called our good buddy Jay at home in Connecticut. His cell was also off, so I called the house and had to have his mom wake him up at 8 something in the morning so I could deliver the news. “Um, could you wake him up? It’s important.” I called our friend Katie Bell, who soon rushed me off the phone so she could call Kim and check on her.
I returned Kim’s call – she and I must have spoken at least ten times that day. I called Christina, the girl I was dating at the time. There were many other phone calls. At one point, I didn’t know who else to call, so I called my mom. I was sobbing and stuffed up when I called her. Her first question was, “Do you have a cold?” “No!” I wailed, “I’m crying!” I told her what had happened, and could tell that she felt so terribly for me. There was nothing a mother could do in this situation besides listen. The only basis for comparison that either of my parents had was the passing of their parents, but fortunately for them, not a best friend.
I later found out that Matt was agonizing over calling me. As a co-worker of Bill’s, he had gotten the news very early. And he was faced with the daunting task of calling me to tell me my best friend was dead. And later that day, he had to anchor the news and read the story about Bill on the air, over and over. I don’t know how he did it.
Meanwhile, I was agonizing over calling Brian Drake, Bill’s high school best friend, who he had been hanging out with THAT night. He returned my voicemail shortly before noon, as Brett and I were about to make a Dunkin Donuts run.
“Hey man what’s up?”
“Sit down, I have some bad news.”
“Dude, I just found out that one of my best friends is going to jail. Nothing you can tell me could possibly be worse than that.”
“Sit down, this is worse.”
So I had to break the news to Brian, who was just dumbfounded. He called a few more times that day for the details of how, where, etc. He went to the scene and tried to digest it on his own.
The rest of the afternoon was a blur. Watched the Bengals-Steelers game (I think that was the one when Carson Palmer’s knee got blown out), and the Giants-Panthers game, which turned out to be a massacre. Brett sat patiently on the couch as I made and fielded what must have been hundreds of phone calls. When it became obvious that the girl I was dating wasn’t going to show in my hour of need (she’d been through something similar and didn’t want to relive it), Brett stayed over an extra night just so I wouldn’t be sitting there alone. For that, I will be eternally grateful.
I went back to work at the radio station on Monday, actually filling in nights that week for Jack Spade, who was out after busting up a knee, I believe. I talked about Bill on the air. Listeners called with support, and their own stories. I’m glad I did it.
The week wore on, and plans for the funeral, wake, etc. came together.
Thursday morning, I departed for Syracuse. I must say that my co-workers (particularly AJ, who was my Program Director at the time) were very accommodating. Even got a shoutout from one of the morning shows as I made my way down Route 7. I must have stopped 4 times during that five hour drive….I was so nervous my stomach was in knots. At one point on the New York Thruway, I was talking to my Dad on the phone. He asked me if this was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I told him I’d know after it was over. In hindsight, I don’t think there’s any doubt.
The wake wasn't until Friday, but Bill’s dad’s health had deteriorated to the point where he couldn’t be let out of the hospital. So the decision was made to sort of “bring the wake to him” on Thursday. Much to my surprise (and honor), the family asked Kim, Brian, and I to be part of it. I got to the hospital before Kim, made a pit stop, and when I returned to the lobby, Kim was waiting, with her back toward me.
“Kim!” I called out….and we ran up to each other and hugged. Probably one of the most emotional hugs of my life. Soon, Brian and the Leaf women arrived. We all went up to Mr. Leaf’s room. Last time I’d seen the guy, he was a big guy ambling around the house in his underwear, like any dad. When I saw him, he weighed probably less than me. That was tough, but not nearly as tough as what was next.
We all made our way down to the hospital’s chapel in the basement. They were going to bring Bill there so we could read parts of our eulogies, and Bill’s dad could see him one last time. Kim and I walked down that hallway, arm in arm, because if we didn’t lean on each other for support, we would have fallen over. Then came, without a doubt, the single worst moment of my entire life.
We turned left into the chapel, and I saw my best friend laying in a casket.
I remember gasping some semblance of “Oh my god” as my knees buckled. Fortunately, Kim was there with me to help me remain upright. She’d already had the initial shock, as she’d gone to help ID the body earlier in the week.
So we ran through parts of our eulogies, mainly for Mr. Leaf’s benefit. Then Brian saw something that I, to this day, am thankful I didn’t see. When they wheeled Bill Sr. up to the casket, he reached out, touched Bill, and muttered, “That’s my boy.” The word “heartbreaking” feels woefully inadequate to describe that moment.
So, we wrapped up the mini-service. Kim and Brian and I headed up the SU Hill to Acropolis, the Greek pizza joint. We laughed as we remembered Bill’s impression of the guys that worked there: “You want slice?” Brian pointed out that every time he asked for a Poison song on his satellite radio, one came up. They were Bill’s favorite band.
We had a couple of slices, and I called up Professor John Nicholson at SU’s Newhouse School. He was Bill’s and my favorite professor in college, and he liked both of us. Fortunately, he was in his office, and I went up there and shot the shit with him for quite awhile.
Following that, it was off to Katie Bell’s house in Liverpool (not far from Bill’s, ironically). She must have had half a dozen of us sleeping on pull out beds, floors, guest rooms, you name it. And she put us all up. She and I got some dinner, and after playing some cards with Kim, Lian, and Jay, we headed to bed.
Friday was the wake. I warned people that the sight of Bill would be quite the shock, and it was to most. In the end, I was just in awe of how many people showed up. Bill had a huge influence on my life, but others as well. Andy Jones and Andy Demetra came up from the Carolinas. Every politician in town was there – after all, Bill had interviewed most of them. In addition to being a 25 year old struck down in the prime of his life, he was also a local radio and TV personality. At the request of Bill's friends, there were flowers from Poison (yes, his favorite band), and a signed football from New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. There was a constant slideshow of pictures…including Bill and me at Fenway, me in my “Yankees Suck” shirt.
My most vivid memory from the wake is Professor Nicholson. I went to shake his hand, and he instead reached out and gave me a hug. I introduced him to Kim, who was quick to point out that “Prof N” was Bill’s favorite. The Professor seemed genuinely touched.
Later, we stopped by to see some of Bill’s co-workers – Erica and Erin and a few others. We shared wildly inappropriate stories about Bill, and had a ton of laughs.
Then it was off to bed. I showed my eulogy to a few people for their thoughts. In hindsight, that was kinda silly – what were they gonna say, “Gee, Jag, I dunno, it kinda sucks?”
Matt came and picked me up Saturday morning (we were both pall bearers), so we could get to the funeral home early. On the way there, we remarked that we needed to do a better job of staying in touch with each other….a promise that I’m happy to say, 10+ years later, that we’ve kept.
So we head in, and all the pall bearers get our white cotton gloves. Then, right as the service was about to start, I was overcome. I bolted for the men’s room, and bawled it out (a little embarrassing when I later found out everyone could hear me), but composed myself and came back. On with the service.
Then we got into the limo to head to the Church. I’ll always remember this – the hilarious group of guys that were pall bearers – myself, Jay, Matt, Mike McDonough, Drake, and a friend of Bill’s from high school – we were cracking jokes all the way to the church to relieve the tension.
The funeral service was interesting. Catholic service, done by a retired priest who knew Bill as a boy. He’d previously had the audacity to tell us that we had 10 combined minutes for a eulogy. Sorry, Father, but it wasn’t going to happen that way. Maria got up, and spoke for about 10 minutes. I was later floored to find out she was going off notes she’d written on the way over. I guess that’s why she is one helluva reporter.
Kim followed, then Brian. The priest looked at Maria like “come on, we’re way over our time here,” but Maria could only shrug. When Brian finished, I didn’t want to run the risk of being cut off, so I leaped up to the microphone before anyone could stop me. The one thing I remember from the service itself – Kim was across the aisle and one row behind me. She was fine one minute and a mess the next. This cycle repeated over and over. It was heart-wrenching to watch.
We left the Church, bound for the cemetery. And as jovial as the limo had been on the way TO the service, nobody said a word after. Finally after a few minutes I blurted out, “Will somebody please (bleeping) say something!??!?!”
With a police escort and seemingly endless line of cars behind us, we eventually got to Woodlawn Cemetery, and the mausoleum. Some more prayers, as everyone paid their final respects and laid flowers on the casket. The 6 pall bearers stood off to the side, each of us doing something different. One looked straight up. Another looked straight down. A third looked straight ahead. As for me, I didn’t say a word, as tear after tear just continued to roll down my cheeks. (Katie later told me she couldn’t look at us, it was so bad). Everyone laid their flower and solemnly walked past us. Except for my boys Kenny and Matt. They both gave me a huge hug, which I desperately needed at the time.
Everyone headed back, except the 6 of us pall bearers. We had one final task- putting the casket in the metal “vault” before it would be lowered into the ground. Hearing that metal lock into place was a sickening sound that brought a finality to the worst day of my life.
Headed back to Katie’s and took a nap – emotionally drained doesn’t even begin to describe it. Got up a little later, as KB was having everyone over for a little shindig to decompress. We had some laughs…among other things. Soon, most of the people were gone, and it was only a few of us. We ended up listening to the “Homecoming Mix CDs” that Bill had made over the years….he always loved having us all back in town for a weekend. Kind of emotional there. Finally, everyone else left, Katie went to bed, and it was just Lian and me. For all the ups and downs and twists and turns our friendship has had up until then and since, there we were. We hugged goodnight, and didn’t let go for 20 minutes. It was tough.
Finally, on Sunday, it was time to leave. Kim, Lian, and I stopped at the Dunkin Donuts by Bill’s house that I had been to with Bill several times in recent years. We sat at a four person table, and Lian remarked, “That seat shouldn’t be empty.” Then, in one of the most difficult moments of the weekend, Kim finally cracked. She’d handled everything so well for a week….and she knew it. “But what do I do when you guys leave?” she asked. “I don’t want you to go.” I briefly pondered quitting my job and never going back if it would mean helping Kim out. I felt awful about having to leave.
But I did. Got back to Burlington in time for the season premiere of 24. Back to work on Monday. Worked like crazy all week to catch up on stuff, after having been out for two days. Then, finally, Friday night. For the first time in two weeks, I had nowhere to be. I picked up some food and headed home. Listened to Brad Paisley’s “When I Get Where I’m Goin,” a recommendation from my friend Brandy. And finally, all the adrenaline finally wore off. I sat down on my bed and cried. No, I didn't "cry." I bawled my eyes out…for a good 45 minutes. Finally, I let it all out. And thank God I did.
There have been so many things in the last 12 years that he’s missed out on. All the ups and downs of my personal and professional life that I would have liked to counsel him on. Landing my dream job in Detroit, losing it, going to New Orleans, then getting to come back. And last year, getting married in July. It sucks that he couldn't be standing up next to me, but I got a lovely text message from Kim that afternoon:
I feel fortunate that Bill could indeed be at my wedding in spirit. It's Jewish custom to make a charitable donation prior to a wedding, so we donated the cost of two plates (Bill and guest) to the scholarship fund set up for him at Syracuse University.
I was also thrilled that Bill's sister Maria could be there. (She ended up at table 11, Bill's favorite number after his favorite player Phil Simms. We didn't plan that, but maybe Bill had a hand in that when we did the tables.) I'm also thrilled that Maria and I have become such good friends over the last decade. It's not just because of Bill either - she's a legitimately important friend in my life - and I'm so glad she could be there. And of course we played Bill's favorite- Piano Man - at the end of the night.
I’m sure Bill would be happy for all of us, too. Matt has worked at some amazing radio stations and now has his best job title ever – Dad (now times two!). Our good buddy Jay got married last year, and also played, “Piano Man,” to close the reception. Maria working tirelessly to pass the “Bill Leaf-Brandy Woods Law” in New York State, creating harsher penalties for repeat drunk drivers. I’m sure Bill would think it cool that his name is on a law. Also, Kim now being married to a great guy, and they have two awesome kids. Bill would be happy that she’s happy. And of course, the Giants winning 2 Super Bowls, but ugh, let’s not go there.
October 2018 Update:
I post this story with a heavy heart every year on Bill's birthday (October 10) and the day he passed (January 8th). But this year, our collective hearts weigh even heavier.
Last month, our dear friend Lian, after giving birth to twin boys in March of this year, died suddenly in her sleep. There's no doubt Kim and I would not have made it through that awful weekend in January 2006 without her friendship and support. And now I can't get the image of that Liverpool Dunkin Donuts out of my head, when Lian said "that seat shouldn't be empty." Now there are two empty seats at that 4-top. Of our senior year group of 4, only two of us remain. Bill never saw 26, and Lian never saw 39.
Bill's passing has led me to be a fierce advocate against drunk driving. Lian had many post-partum complications after delivering her boys. We all believed she was out of the woods; she was back to work and tenaciously advocating for maternal health in the US, a country which lags far behind the rest of the developed world. There are a number of people who have taken up the cause in Lian's honor, and it's my hope that we get better in that area as well. There's a GoFundMe set up to help out Lian's husband and her boys, which you can access by clicking on the picture of them below.
The funny thing is – I’ve actually been writing this speech in the back of my head for about seven years now. I’d always figured I’d be giving it at Bill’s wedding – not at his funeral.
Bill always loved being the center of attention. So there’s no doubt he’s watching all of this now, smiling, and probably cracking a few one liners up there. We pondered some of life’s great mysteries together – from football, classic rock and girls – to some deeper stuff too. A couple of times, he said to me, “Man, I wonder who would be at my funeral.” Well, Bill, here’s your answer.
The outpouring from this whole community over the last week has been truly astounding. Particularly when you consider that Bill lived his entire life in Syracuse, and he was damned proud of where he came from. Our freshman year in Sadler Hall – he used to hear the students from big cities like Boston and New York hating on Syracuse. “The city’s not big enough. There’s not enough mass transit. The bars are only open till 2. There’s not enough to do here.” Hearing any of those complaints truly offended Bill. As a native son of the Salt City, he would go out of his way to tell people what a great place this was. And seeing how this community has embraced him, his family, and his friends, he was absolutely right.
Many of you knew Bill as a voice on the radio – or maybe the occasional sports guy on Channel 5. But I feel it’s necessary to tell you a little bit more about who he was – always the life of the party, and the self-proclaimed “King of One Liners” and “King of Randomness.”
I met Bill at our first floor meeting on Sadler 5 a week before the Labor Day Storm. We got to talking about life, and sports, and soon discovered a kindred spirit in each other- a passion for football. Being from Boston -–I am a huge Patriots fan – I soon learned that my obsession with the Patriots was matched by his for the Giants. And soon we discovered we shared a sense of humor, and a similar view on the whole world as well. Because, after all, when you’re 17 years old, you know EVERYTHING.
Freshman year we watched the Orangemen vs. Virginia Tech in the Dome. Donovan McNabb threw a touchdown pass with no time on the clock to pull the upset – Bill, Kim, and I all stormed the field together. Kim and I thought we lost him, but sure enough – there he was, in front of the VA-Tech fans, taunting them with his “Dome Sweet Dome” T-shirt. Five years later, we were re-united on Marshall Street, celebrating the basketball team’s national title.
Bill and I stayed in close contact throughout college, eventually becoming roommates in a South Campus apartment our senior year. It was without a doubt the greatest year of my life. Anybody who knows Bill personally – has worked with him – or even gone out on the town with him – will understand when I say that there was NEVER a dull moment. In fact, the most difficult part about writing this speech was picking out the stories that are actually fit to be told in public.
We bonded over big events. We pulled the rare “double roommate all-nighter” twice – once to write our history theses for our minor, and once to finish our long-form TV news packages for Professor John Nicholson’s television reporting class. Naturally, we waited until the last minute to start both. The only thing worse than one procrastinator is two – because they tend to demotivate each other. “Hey Bill, think we should start those papers?” “Nah man, it’s Thursday night – lets’ go out.” “Yeah, Bill, you’re probably right.”
But as you might imagine – it was the stupid little things that brought us even closer together as brothers. Early on in the year, we decided the apartment needed some “sprucing up.” So we drove to a gas station, found a “Welcome Back Students” Snapple banner, and, ahem, borrowed it. We tacked it up on our wall, and had all visitors to the apartment sign it. All year, we debated who would keep it. In the end, he let me have it, because he knew how badly I wanted it. That’s just the type of person he was.
Two months later, for the only time in our college careers, the Yankees LOST the World Series. We celebrated in the backyard, in full Mets and Red Sox gear, respectively. Our Yankee fan neighbors next door were about to call public safety on us, but Bill used that charm of his to talk them out of it.
In addition to being the funniest guy in the room, Bill was a good friend – always looking out for those around him. Anybody can tell you about him helping them with a story, or a personal problem, something like that. But he made it his personal mission senior year to get me a girl. He introduced me to the girl that eventually became my first serious girlfriend. But prior to that, he acted as my own personal tour guide at the SU bars – explaining what to drink, what to say to girls, and more importantly, what not to say to girls – because, of course, I had no idea what I was doing. But Bill is the type of person that can initiate a conversation with anyone – and I was happy to ride his coattails.
Bill was my best friend, so I knew what a great person he was, how funny he was, and what a joy he was to be around. But over the last week, I’ve been surprised to see how many others were able to realize all of that, too. There are people here from all over the country – that knew Bill just well enough to know what a great guy he was. My friend Kenny from Boston – hung out with Bill and me maybe 5, 10 times tops. When he heard the tragic news, he called me in tears, asking about the arrangements. In the few times he had been out with us, Bill had made such an impression on Kenny, and made him feel part of the group, that he knew he had to be here today.
Bill made many of us feel like family. But the truth of the matter is that he ALWAYS made sure his family came first. The reason Bill wasn’t there with me when my Patriots won their first Super Bowl was simply this: he always watches the Super Bowl with his Dad – and he couldn’t break that tradition. Several months ago, he was planning a trip to visit me in Vermont, but cancelled everything when his father took ill.
And catching up with him on the phone in recent months was tough to do. Bill was getting up, going to work, going to the hospital to be with his Dad until the end of visiting hours, then going home to help his Mom with all the family affairs in his father’s absence. I think that says a lot about him as a person. On top of all that, he was occasionally doing sports on WTVH-5, something he was very proud of. He’d always wanted to do TV sports, and now he was doing it in his home town, where his Dad could see him. He was always hesitant to take some small town “starter” sports job in another part of the country, because he didn’t want to be away from his family and Kim.
Bill and I were there for each other in the good times and the bad, including stretches where we both went through a sort of “quarter life crisis.” The assumption in that term is that, at 21, your life is only a quarter over.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to have him in our lives, we will no longer have the corny, often inappropriate jokes that accompanied that smile of his, and that look he always had. He was so proud of his jokes that he would eventually disable your defenses and make you laugh with him. And yes, ladies, the eyes. He knew he had them.
I want to conclude by breaking a cardinal rule of journalism, and quoting something without attributing it – because, well, I don’t know where it’s from, but it seems appropriate.
“When you were born, you were crying and everyone else was smiling.
Live your life so that when you die, you’ll be smiling and everyone else will be crying.”
In his short 25 years, Bill had the uncanny ability to make everyone around him smile. And as time goes on, each of us has stories we’ll always look back on and laugh. The real tragedy is that we’ll never know what he would have come up with in the next 50.
Bill, I always loved you like a brother, and I know I always will.
October 10th, 2020, would have been Bill’s 40th Birthday. Happy Birthday, man.
A few years ago, I was able to get Bret Michaels to dedicate a song to him. Pretty cool stuff.