Dr. Rice Leach, Lexington’s commissioner of health, died Friday morning. He was 75.
Leach had battled lymphoma, a type of cancer. Two weeks ago, he was honored via Skype with the Lexington-Fayette County Board of Health’s 2016 Public Health Hero award.
Leach had previously sent an email to the health department’s staff, telling them he would not be returning to work and that palliative care and hospice were “not too far in the future.”
“I think that most of you know I have loved working here, love our mission and love all of you,” Leach wrote.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said that Leach “was a great and generous man in every way. Compassionate. Committed. Determined. He had a powerful personality and sense of humor, along with a passion for public health, caring and healing.”
Leach had an ebullient, expansive style and a deep regard for all things relating to the health department and the history of public health in Lexington. He once said that he had spent time poring over the minutes of health board meetings from decades ago and found them fascinating.
Scott White, a Lexington attorney who spent two years as chairman of the board of health working closely with Leach, said: “It’s not too much to say Rice’s leadership saved Lexington’s health department when he came out of semi-retirement to take on this job in 2011.”
Leach’s leadership spurred recent department initiatives including integrating safe food trucks into Lexington’s street dining and a needle-exchange program designed to combat the spread of blood-borne disease, White said.
“One of the real gifts that as a friend Rice taught me was that you could have a serious job that impacted serious issues but that you did not have to live seriously, ... that an attitude of joy and playfulness could often be the best thing you could bring to a situation or to building a relationship,” White said Friday. “As I’ve been thinking about our friendship the last few months, I’ve not thought about what we accomplished together — which was not insubstantial — but the laughs we had and gave.”
“Dr. Leach had a long, colorful professional history, and he loved sharing stories from all the different jobs he’s held,” said Kevin Hall, a health department spokesman. “He brought a lot of love to this department, and everyone loved him back.”
Leach had been commissioner of health since March 2011. He had previously worked with the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department from 2005 to 2010 as the executive director of what was then the department’s Primary Care Center.
Dr. John Riley, a Lexington pediatrician and a longtime member of the board of health, said Leach had the ability to make each person “feel they were listened to and appreciated. With this, he maintained and advanced the health of the community.”
A Lexington native, Leach graduated from Amherst College and received his medical degree from the University of Kentucky in 1966. He did his rotating internship as an officer of the United States Public Health Service and remained on active duty until 1993. While in the public health service, he was medical director of hospital staffs, hospital commander, community health physician and director of a multi-state program in the Indian Health Service.
He also was chief of staff to the U.S. surgeon general.
Leach received a master’s degree in Health Services Administration from the Harvard School of Public Health. He was Kentucky’s public health commissioner from 1992 until 2004. Before becoming Lexington’s health commissioner, he was professor and preventive residency program associate director at UK’s College of Public Health Department of Preventive Medicine and Environmental Health.
Leach had announced plans to retire this year. A nationwide search for a new commissioner has begun. Jack Cornett, the health department’s chief financial officer, is acting commissioner.
White said losing Leach “is assuaged only by his love for the work and the legacy he leaves. ... He lived a life we can all envy.”
Rogers Funeral Home in Frankfort is in charge of arrangements.