The spirit of David K. Leff endures at Memorial Service
By John Fitts
Many who gathered outdoors on one of Collinsville’s most stately streets the evening of May 31 to memorialize the late David K. Leff said they felt his spirit present.
So perhaps the American Bald Eagle that soared over The Green – as Jay Kaplan spoke of Leff’s love for the natural world and so much more – was no mere coincidence.
There were many tributes that evening to Leff, who died very unexpectedly just a few days earlier at age 67.
As hundreds gathered on The Green’s acute angles and expansive lawns for his Memorial service, the town of Canton Volunteer Fire and EMS Department’s Engine 3 and its volunteers served as bookends to the small lane where Leff made his home for close to 40 years.
Poets, musicians, naturalists, colleagues, firefighters and spiritual guides paid tribute and offered a glimpse of the man who during his life and despite increasingly debilitating back and neck pain, had served as Deputy Commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Canton Town Historian, Canton Poet laureate, Chairman of the Collinsville Historic District Commission, published author and poet, director of Audubon Connecticut, safety officer for the town of Canton Volunteer Fire and EMS Department and so much more.
“David was born to public service,” said Dick Barlow, the former Canton first selectman and retired Chief of Waste Management Bureau at DEP who served as Leff’s colleague for decades.
Barlow spoke to many of Leff’s aforementioned roles, his way with words; ability to listen and be kind, but forthright and knowledgeable with his opinions; and his skill at guiding public meetings.
“I think town moderator may have been his best public service role as he had the opportunity to show his many skills as a respected resident who was an honest, impartial facilitator trusted by all our citizens,” Barlow said.
Barlow also spoke to Leff’s love of Collinsville and alluded to just one of the many ways Leff brought that to life.
“David was an accomplished author, poet and playwright. His subjects reflected his interests – the environment, outdoors, history and, of course, Collinsville.
One of the highlights of Christmas in Collinsville was a horse carriage ride with David as he guided you dressed in period clothes. He was also a lecturer for the Canton Historical Museum. He loved gardening and who else would have maple sugared at 4 The Green?”
Wayne Goeben, past chief of the Canton Volunteer Fire and EMS, spoke to Leff’s crucial role in the department.
In his remarks, Goeben incorporated information from Leff’s first book, “The Last Undiscovered Place,” which speaks to finding the complex richness of life in one’s own backyard.
Goeben noted how in it, Leff described ‘the bravest act of all is volunteering itself.”
He went on to tell how Leff, in the book, recounts sitting with a friend watching the annual jamboree fireworks. It sparked his interested in joining the fire service but the night he went to the Collinsville station to express that desire, he was asked to return later as members were mourning the July 12, 1987, line of duty death of the late Arthur Vincent.
“So, David went back and that was when he had his first glimpse that the department was as much a family as an organization dedicated to life and preservation of property,” Goeben said. “When a new member comes to the department, there are all sorts of reasons. Some have family ties, or they’re planning a career and want some experience. David had none of that. He simply came to help.
We never know if a new member is there for a day, a month or a lifetime. David was there for a lifetime.”
Leff served a crucial role in the department, Goeben said, at a time where safety was highly visible and rapidly changing. Leff stepped down from the role in 2013 but continued to serve, making sure that crucial hydrant on his own front lawn – tied to a 48-inch water main – was always ready to go. Leff also came up with the Department’s slogan of “Valuing life at a moment’s notice.”
“We’ll never know how many injuries or deaths were prevented from David’s intervention, but I know our members were safer because he was there. … They say it takes a village to raise a child and they’re right, but it takes people to make up a village. David was a champion of our Village, and to all of our residents. I know my life, my family’s lives, your lives and our town are much the better for having had him in it.”
Kaplan, who is director at Roaring Brook Nature Center in Canton, spoke to many aspects of Leff’s life, including their similar backgrounds, love for family gatherings, and gardening. Kaplan shared how Leff's passion for the natural world and music led him to help park cars for the center’s 40-year concert series. Leff would also accompany Kaplan on annual, pre- 6 a.m. trips to the Hartford landfill to census grassland birds.
“Wayne Goeben said something interesting about the fire department being a family and one thing about David, he had lots of families and the number of people here tonight is a testament to how much he meant in so many different areas of life, whether it be poetry, or maple sugaring or nature or history,” Kaplan said. “He was very much a renaissance man who I am proud to call a good friend for over 30 years.”
Many poets also participated in the service, which also featured readings of Leff’s own verse. Past state poet laureate and publisher Rennie McQuilkin, past Canton Poet Laureate Joan Hoffman and current state poet laureate Margaret Gibson all shared their experiences and read works.
“He and I shared many things,” Hoffman said. “We love words; we love literature. We love the wild world, the natural world, share a concern for our environment. We love this town. We love this river and so, I’ve chosen to read a poem ‘Ode to the Farmington River.’”
Margaret Gibson told how Leff’s name quickly surfaced when she was looking for someone to help with her mission.
“When I became poet laureate of Connecticut three years ago, I knew that I wanted to make the natural world and the human world, which is part of it, and environmental crisis and global climate crisis, the theme of my laureateship. I was looking for partners and someone to help and someone said do you know David Leff?”
The two had lunch, talked for hours and became fast friends. Leff even organized an Earth Day Celebration at White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield and a panel for another program at real Art Ways in Hartford.
She recalled a humorous walk in the woods for a publicity video.
“He even helped push me up a very tall rock so I could sit with a book of poems looking like probably an idiot - but a poet who loved the natural world. That’s kind of typical,” she said. “David was always pushing me up.”
Leff was well known as a disciple of “deep travel” and keen observation.
His sister Elizabeth talked about the notepads he carried everywhere.
“The notepads were an appendage, always with him,” she said. “The notepads contain all of his thoughts and observations as he walked or read, observations of everyday things, trees, rocks, turtles – items that most of us walk right by without another thought. He called them ‘marvels hidden in plain sight,’” she said.
Elizabeth also shared a story how she and her husband Mark, her brother and his wife Mary C. Fletcher and friends Julie and Marsha went to Belize several years ago. Her brother was absolutely fascinated by creatures known as leafcutter ants. She also shared that upon their return, they received an email from David Leff listing the 40 different types of birds – “roughly in order” the group had spotted on their walk in the rainforest. He wrote, “If I missed anything, please let me know.”
“This email brought chortles of laughter and amazement as no one else knew we had even [seen] 40 different types of birds, never mind what type they were,” she said.
She also shared stories of their childhood, including the time she dropped an orange peel on the ground during a hike in the woods when David was in high school.
“David admonished me and told me to pick it up,” she said. “I countered that it was biodegradable. David responded ‘so are you, but I would not drop your parts here,’ a response I will never forget.”
Elizabeth Leff also shared her brother’s pride in negotiating a land deal to preserve 15,000 acres of land known as the Centennial Watershed State Forest (a 2002 partnership between The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and Aquarion Water Company).
Later, Attorney Mark Branse, who originally met David Leff in 1976 at the University of Connecticut School of Law, also spoke to Leff’s pride in his open space accomplishments, which included convincing John G. Rowland to carry out a plan that involved, over 10 years, open space spending of some $214 million, a number greatly leveraged by willing sellers, below-market sales, and an array of public and private partnerships.
Branse also spoke of a theme in Leff’s collective work.
“I think of this one thread that wove its way through all of David’s writing and his work and really his view of the world,” he said. “It was his fascination with the intricate relationship between the physical environment and the history and growth of humankind. David’s work at DEP and his writings explored how humankind responded to and in turned was shaped by the physical environment. Sometimes we change the environment for better, sometimes for the worse, but David felt that that relationship, that way that the land shaped us, and we shaped the land was an essential thing that we have to understand. David did not see this as a tug of war. He did not see it as man against nature as you often hear it portrayed. For him it was more like a pas de duex, a ballet, a dance, that we could live in harmony, that we could find that balance of the physical environment and the needs of the human race, that we could respect each other’s gifts and honor each other’s needs and you see that, I think, in all of his work.”
Leff's daughter, Tiki Leff Diliberto, offered some personal insight about her father as she wore one of his "dorky" ties.
"My dad was a rare breed, a breed of impeccable design, never judgmental of my independent spirit, and friend to all who crossed his path," she said. "I can only hope I am of the same breed. My father was an incredible man of incredible design and God willing we’ll all meet again in Spaceballs 2 – the Search for More Money."
Leff’s son Josh also spoke at the event, thanking attendees and also emphasizing the depth of his father’s life, family adventures and his embrace of so many people.
“My father was a man who lived a life greater than any of us could individually understand,” he said. “As a student he was introduced to Emerson and from thereafter he was completely driven to explore the world around him.
He was a writer, deputy commissioner of the Connecticut department of Environmental Protection, volunteer firefighter, lawyer, historian, naturalist, father, husband, brother and friend. There was no limit to the hats that he wore or hat. By the way, he had a lot of hats. He lived life to the fullest. As Mel Brooks might put it, he lived at ludicrous speed. No amount of time was left untapped. He constantly wrote, read, walked, hiked and adored the opportunity to share his thoughts with anyone interested. My father had limitless friends. He went to minor league baseball games with Alan Weiner, birding with Jay Kaplan, hiking with friends from his work from the state, went to lunch with his law school buddies, visited neighbors, and chatted with so many other poets. No matter what he was doing. David Leff was always prepared to befriend new people. He would talk, listen, and offer his help to those he did not even know. He believed in the value of each person and showed that to us all. He was always seen about town on the trail, or the library, in so many establishments in Collinsville. This place meant everything to my father. While he wouldn’t say himself, I will say it now, the man was a townie.”
Fletcher, who also read one of Leff’s poems, expressed amazement at the evening’s turnout.
“Thank you for all being here to celebrate David's life,” she said. “He would have
loved this. He would have loved to have been here with you today. I believe he is here hovering over us now, smiling before he travels on. He was a deep traveler who is departing on his last journey.”
Editor's Note: We plan to expand this story for a future issue of Valley LIFE. See more photos here.
As noted on the town of Canton Facebook page: In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made in David’s name to one of the following non-profit organizations:
• Roaring Brook Nature Center, roaringbrook.org, 70 Gracey Road, Canton, CT 06019
• Collinsville Historical Society, cantonmuseum.org, 11 Front Street, Collinsville, CT 06019
• Gallery on the Green, galleryonthegreen.org, 5 Canton Green Road, Canton, CT 06019
• Collinsville Volunteer Fire Department, 51 River Rd, Canton, CT 06019
• Audubon Connecticut, audubon.org, 613 Riversville Road, Greenwich, CT 06831 (note: this is the CT Chapter for National Audubon, not the CT Audubon Society)