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Colleagues recall teacher’s talent

Mark Leonard

RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Those were somber hallways at Rio Rancho High School during the last week in January, after faculty members learned of the unexpected death of science teacher Mark Leonard on Jan. 29.

Born in Mesa, Ariz., Leonard served in the Air Force from 1980-84. He began teaching in 1990 at Lincoln Middle School, when it was still part of Albuquerque Public Schools; he moved to RRHS when it opened in 1997, and he taught science courses until his retirement following the 2017-18 school year.

For Leonard, 62 at the time of his passing, it’s a case of “gone but not forgotten.”

Recalled Pat Di Vasto, Sandia Vista Elementary principal but a longtime Rio Rancho Public Schools employee, “In 1996, the Rio Rancho Chamber of Commerce honored our Lincoln Middle School teaching team as Teachers of the Year. The team was comprised of science teacher Mark, the late language arts teacher Suzanne Bullard, social studies teacher Will Cummings and I was the math teacher.

“During that spring break, we gathered at Lincoln Middle School and created a mock archaeological dig at the front of the school. It was a very large piece of property and all of our students participated in a mock dig. Collaborative teaching was a new concept in the mid-90s and it was a huge success,” she said. “Mark was an incredibly gifted teacher and very well respected.”

Once the sad news was posted on Facebook, former students and co-workers of Leonard were quick to add their comments.

Among them was former RRPS administrator Stephanie Belmore, who said Leonard “was one of Rio Rancho High School’s brightest, a hero of mine and a gentle soul! We are all lucky and grateful to have such an influential mentor for our youth. He made our school whole! He definitely will leave a hole in our hearts. He will be missed by many.”

According to his obituary, his free time was spent with his sons, watching them play soccer, lacrosse, football and rugby — and his nights were spent admiring the stars. He also found enjoyment as a ski patroller at Sandia Peak Ski Area.

“The RRHS community and Rio Rancho as a city have lost a great man,” said John Shepard, who coached Leonard’s soccer-playing sons at RRHS. “His classroom starred in the TV series ‘Breaking Bad.’ … He was an avid hiker and rock climber and outdoor enthusiast. He could be seen running his dog through the hills behind school. He was ‘science advisor’ and chaperon for the RRHS boys soccer team while his youngest son, Robbie, played, and even after Robbie graduated.

“Many of this year’s graduating seniors had him as a science teacher,” Shepard added. “This year Mark was enjoying retirement and watching Robbie play in the last year of his (Eastern New Mexico University) college career.

“He was one of the good ones that made teaching his passion and life’s work. He will be sorely missed. Rio Rancho High School, Rio Rancho Public Schools and the city of Rio Rancho are worse for his passing but are much, much better for his having lived,” Shepard said.

“Mark was an excellent teacher who made teaching his passion and life’s work,” RRHS principal Sherri Carver said. “He made lasting relationships with his students, the staff, parents and with the RRHS community. Mark Leonard will be sorely missed.”

Among his survivors are his wife of 33 years, Elizabeth, and their four sons, all who played soccer at RRHS: Charles, Samuel, Andrew and Robert. A memorial service was held Friday at Church of the Incarnation in Rio Rancho.