Then, in one of the luckiest moments of my life, a demonstrator I didn't know invited me to sit with her. She was warm and talkative, with a happy smile and a twinkle in her eye. She told me about her UL business in Minnesota, said I was silly to sit by myself, and bought me a glass of wine. What a relief not to be all alone! The next day, my new friend, Leona Holzer, asked me to take notes for her during the final sessions of convention, as she had an early flight. I emailed her my notes when I got home, and that email became the first of so many back and forth over the next 6 years.
Leona and I had little in common. She grew up in a rural farming community and her life still very much revolved around farming. Her children were older than mine and her life seemed less hectic. For her, nothing was as important than her children, Taylor and Jeremy. Basketball season was a busy time, as Taylor was a high school cheerleader and Leona never missed one of her games. Soon Taylor graduated and Leona proudly talked about how well she did in college.
Even though we weren't on the same UL team, she became a coach and cheerleader to me. Her business was growing much more rapidly than mine, but she was always so happy to hear about my successes. I thought of her as my leader, but she treated me as her equal. She had a knack for getting a customer to place an order or book a party that I marveled at. While I usually fumbled over my words when talking to customers and hostesses, she got it all done via text! Though her business was thriving, mine was struggling. But she never let me give up, and told me repeatedly that I could accomplish whatever I wanted with UL. Her success was hardly surprising, since she devoted so many hours to it. She made herself available to her team virtually any time and thought nothing of driving 4 or 5 hours each way to a UL party. When I told her that would be like me driving to parties in San Francisco, she just laughed and kept driving!
It was on those drives to our parties that we caught up with each other. Our conversations about work led to those about children, families, dreams about the future. When our 3 hour time difference allowed, we checked in before an after our parties, comparing notes about how we did, what customers were excited about and how we could improve. By now, we'd seen each other at multiple UL events and our friendship had grown stronger with each visit. I was so happy to introduce her to my family after our Las Vegas convention and was equally happy to meet hers a bit later. Taylor often accompanied her mom on UL trips, so she quickly found her way into my heart, too.
On one of our calls a couple of years ago, she confided that she'd seen a doctor for a lingering cough, and the doctor was concerned. I quickly reassured her, confident that she didn't need anything stronger than antibiotics. But within weeks she received a daunting diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer. Her diagnosis hit me like a punch in the stomach; I felt knocked out and unsure what to do next. Leona knew, though. She went to the doctor, got treated, and kept working. With a drain in her chest, she and Taylor went to the Dominican Republic on a trip she'd earned for being a top seller with UL. When she got home, she kept working, and became our top seller that year.
Awards night at that year's convention was beautiful and emotional. As she was recognized and "crowned" as the only UL Queen ever, each of us got to go on stage, drape a feather boa around her neck and congratulate her personally. There was a long line of demonstrators waiting to hug Leona because she was so loved by all of us. She helped anyone who asked, always with a new idea, an encouraging word and a wicked sense of humor. In all the years I've been with UL, I have never heard one negative word said about Leona. She was that special.
When I saw Leona last January at our Leadership summit in Cancun, it was clear that the treatments were taking a toll on her. There were fewer long walks and late nights, more time spent in her room resting. By that time we'd all become so protective of her that there was always someone shadowing her to make sure her bag wasn't too heavy or she didn't need to take a break. Still, it was a wonderful trip. Even with the business changes that we were told about, the night we took this photo at our dinner on the beach seemed magical, one of the best I've had since I started with Uppercase Living.
I saw Leona again at last year's convention, where, again, she was honored for her sales and team successes. She was thinner last year, and wearing a wig to hide the damage caused by chemotherapy, but her eyes sparkled as much as ever, especially when she talked about her new baby grandson, Knox. The last several months saw her condition deteriorate rapidly, and we lost her in early June after a very grueling battle.
Throughout this ordeal, our Uppercase Living family was never far from Leona. She got frequent visits from local demonstrator friends, as well her "bestie," our incredible friend, Felicia. Our CEO, whom she dearly loved, paid her a special visit in her final weeks, then returned with an army of demonstrators to celebrate her life. As much as she loved UL, we loved her back.
The glowing words said about Leona these last weeks have truly described how special she was. Several times, I've wanted to call and ask her if she heard how beautifully someone described her, or praised her success as a demonstrator. And then it hits me.
Many times during the last few weeks I've marveled at just what an inspiration Leona was. I think we took for granted how hard she worked, because she made it look easy, never complaining and embracing every new challenge that came her way. That's just one thing I learned from her. While some of us sat around and worried or ranted, Leona just kept working. Strong and steady, she was an immovable pillar, a true inspiration in a company filled with inspirational stories.
So as my flight gets ready to land in Indianapolis, and I am so excited to see my friends, get my fill of all things UL and be silly for a long weekend, there will be a great emptiness without Leona there. It seems impossible to believe that she's gone and that we can go on without her steady support and the example she set as a top demonstrator. I anticipate many tears as we remember and honor our Leona, and I know she won't be forgotten. With all the fun, laughter and friendship that I'm sure will be a part of the weekend in Indianapolis, there will be a scar created by her passing that is as deep and painful as the light she left behind shines bright.