Assistant Director of Business Development and Promotion Sales, Massachusetts State Lottery; Holyoke City Councilor
This City Leader Has Always Been an Ambassador — and a Connector
James Leahy joked that being an at-large city councilor is not a reference to his size.
The six-foot, four-inch Leahy has had a lot of experience retelling that one-liner — more than 20 years worth, actually. Indeed, he was first elected to that body in 1999, when he was only 26, after a run very much inspired by his father (more on that later).
He admits to not expecting to spend two decades in that post, but he has, and in the meantime, he has become involved in, well … all things Holyoke, or almost all things. Indeed, he has devoted considerable time, energy, and expertise to the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and also been involved with everything from the Holyoke YMCA to the Volleyball Hall of Fame; from the Holyoke Children’s Museum to the Westfield State University board of trustees (he’s an alum), as well as Holyoke’s famous merry-go-round.
And recently, he started and still maintains the Hello Holyoke Community Forum.
He does all this while keeping a day job as assistant director of Business Development and Promotion Sales for the Massachusetts State Lottery, a position that requires him to rotate between offices in Springfield and Worcester.
When asked how he finds time for all this, Leahy, who is often described as an ambassador for the city and a ‘connector’ for people looking for help with a problem or issue, gave an answer that speaks volumes about why, a decade after earning his 40 Under Forty plaque, he is a finalist for the coveted Alumni Achievement Award.
“I find the time,” he said. “But more importantly, I find the right amount of time. One of my strong suits is organizational skills, and I try to teach my children that. I think some of them have it, and some of them don’t. I tell them that they have to put the right amount of quality time into whatever they’re doing. If I can’t give 100%, then I’m not doing it.”
Suffice it to say he’s given 100% to Holyoke, and to ascertain how and why that is, we return the subject of Leahy’s father, Thomas, who emigrated to this country from Ireland, arrived with a strong work ethic, and passed on to his children some strong advice about service to the community.
“When my father arrived here, he worked in Boston, and he heard stories about [former Mayor] James Michael Curley and other politicians,” Leahy explained. “He was always talking about politics, and he loved politics. I was named James Michael Leahy, and I’m pretty sure that has something to do with James Michael Curley.
“My dad always talked about giving back and how America gave him what he has,” Leahy went on. “He was always stressing two things — one, that you had to give back, and two, if you’re going to live somewhere and raise your family there, you should be a cog in the wheel; you should be part of the community.”
That mindset was reinforced by his mother, Mary Ellen, a prolific volunteer, he continued, adding that it was only a few years after graduating from Westfield State that he first decided to seek one of Holyoke’s at-large council seats. He remembers the time well; he was not only running for office that November, but getting married that same month. And his birthday and his his fiancée’s birthday were the same day, Nov. 19.
“I was thinking, ‘this could be the best month of my life,’” he recalled. “And then I thought, ‘if I lose the election, that will put a damper on things.’”
But he didn’t lose, and he’s gone on to win every two years since. But, as noted, his work within the city goes far beyond City Council chambers and City Hall — and to institutions like the merry-go-round, the children’s museum, the YMCA, and especially the parade, which he became involved at the behest, if one can call it that, of his father-in-law, attorney Peter Brady.
“He was very active on the parade committee,” Leahy recalled. “I was still in college when I started dating his daughter; I can remember him handing me an application and saying, ‘fill this out — if you’re going to be part of this family, you’re going to be part of the parade committee.’”
And he has been, serving in a number of capacities, from board president to his current assignment, co-marketing director. He is one of many working hard to help the parade bounce back from a year when it had to be canceled — for the first time anyone can remember — because of the pandemic.
No, ‘at-large’ has nothing to do with Leahy’s size. But you could say it has everything to do with his involvement in — and impact on — this historic city, which continues to be very large indeed.