Happy trails: New bike and trails coordinator hits the scene

John Leahy is the new bike and trails coordinator for Thrive Allen County. He started his career with a love of the theatre, then discovered a passion for the outdoors. He's looking forward to continuing to engage with the community.

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October 8, 2021 - 3:33 PM

John Leahy is the new bike and trails coordinator for Thrive Allen County. He is pictured at the Lehigh Portland Trails. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Think of it as a theater production.

The curtain opens on a young man, following a trail through the woods. Along the way, he meets a romantic interest, ends up in a new place and is offered an opportunity to embrace his passion for the outdoors and help his community. 

That’s the story of John Leahy, bike and trails coordinator for Thrive Allen County. His job is to oversee the development and maintenance of biking and walking trails in the region, and to coordinate the bike-share program, which also offers an opportunity to give away bicycles.

But the journey that led him to that role is filled with drama. No, not that kind of drama. The kind you find on stage, in the theater.

Leahy grew up mostly in Wisconsin and became interested in theater while in high school. He studied technical theater in college in Milwaukee. 

He was working in theater when he met his fiance, Tricia Stogsdill. 

Leahy has worked a variety of jobs, including as a landscaper.

At one point, he worked at an outdoor theater. It combined two of his passions: theater and the outdoors.

“It was my dream job to work there,” he said.

A turning point in his life came when he read the book, “A Sand County Almanac,” written in 1949 by ecologist, forester and environmentalist Aldo Leopold. 

The book is considered the genesis for the conservation movement, “and it really spoke to me,” Leahy said. 

“Getting to be part of something like that, and engaging in a community that has a common interest, it’s deeply meaningful to me,” he said.

“Small communities hold a near and dear place in my heart. They give you an opportunity to be impactful.”

John Leahy motions to a stand of invasive cedar trees. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

WHEN his fiance was offered a job to teach theater at Neosho Community College in Chanute in 2018, Leahy followed her. 

After moving to Chanute, Leahy learned about the Lehigh Portland Trails while reading the newspaper. He came to Iola to check them out.

“It was amazing. So many communities this size don’t have amenities like that,” he said. “It was also incredible to see the community support.”

Leahy slowly became acquainted with members of the trail community. Someone told him about the position at Thrive, and it seemed the perfect fit.

Since then, he’s been working closely with members of the local trails community. In particular, that includes people like Randy Rasa, Dave Fontaine and Don Burns and others who led efforts to develop and construct the trails. 

He’s been fascinated by the work Rasa has done to restore native prairie grasses around the trail system.

“Randy has been really incredible. He’s just a wealth of knowledge about the community, about the environment, about all those things,” Leahy said. “There are some really great resources in this community.”

THE TRAILS are important to Allen County and surrounding communities for many reasons, Leahy said.

“From a health standpoint, physical activity is really important, especially as we’re going through something like a pandemic,” he said.

“But also, the trails bring resources to the community, whether that is from tourism or education or just activities in general.”

Recently, a group from Johnson County asked Thrive to organize an educational trail adventure walk. He and Rasa plan to take the group on a tour of the trails, pointing out various flora and fauna along the way.

Leahy also has worked with Upward Bound, a program that helps high school students prepare for college. 

From a regional standpoint, he’s working with a group represented by Allen, Bourbon and Crawford counties, formerly known as the ABC Trail Plan and now called the Prairie Pathways Project. They’re considering how to develop bicycle routes between communities in those counties.

He’s also continuing to meet trail volunteers and others in the community.

Ultimately, he wants to continue to increase the amount of trails to provide accessibility for people throughout Iola. 

“If you live on the north end of the city, sometimes it’s hard to get to a trail,” he said. 

John Leahy points out an invasive female cedar tree. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

IN ADDITION to the trails, Leahy also oversees the bike-share and “Earn a Bike” programs.

The bike share program allows people to “rent” bicycles for travel and recreation. It includes more than 40 bicycles at eight locations throughout the county.

Thrive recently began a program that gives away bicycles to those who take a class on maintenance and repair. As they replace older bicycles with new models for the bike-share program, they refurbish and donate the older bicycles.

The first half-dozen bicycles were quickly snapped up. Leahy joined Thrive after that program began, but Thrive has ordered about 15 new bicycles and plans to offer it again.

“Those bike programs have been very successful,” he said. “We have people who check out bicycles every day, so it’s a big boon to their transportation needs.”

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