As a girl growing up in Pershing, Beth Leisure remembers, “For us, Cambridge City was the big city. Everyone went to Cambridge City for groceries and there were so many businesses there.”

Since 1986, Beth and her husband, Rick, have been part of that business community. Starting with a used appliance store and repair business, they now own the National Road Antique Mall downtown, the former town library building (now an event center called The Archive) and a laundromat and car wash two blocks north. 

The Cambridge New Day Kiwanis Club honored Beth Leisure as its Citizen of the Year on Dec. 5. Along with the couple’s business interests, she worked at reshaping downtown Cambridge City during more than a decade as the Cambridge City Area Chamber of Commerce president, served as the town’s representative on the Wayne County Economic Development Corporation board, became president of the Wayne County Convention and Tourism Board and, in 2018, got elected to the Wayne County Council, where she is finishing a second year as its president.

In introducing her, the 2018 Citizen of the Year Ken Newton talked of her roles in overseeing the growth of the town’s annual fall festival, Canal Days, and its Fourth of July fireworks show. She suggested and helped lead renovation of the Cambridge City fire station’s interior, giving firefighters a better space in which to learn and have meetings. She’s been active in getting dilapidated housing renovated. He praised her organizational skills and drive to succeed.

Mick Fowler, left, the 2017 Citizen of the Year recipient, presents this year’s plaque to Beth Leisure on Dec. 5. Photo by Bob Hansen

As he presented her the Citizen of the Year plaque, Mick Fowler — the 2017 recipient and a retired business owner who served as Cambridge City Town Council president — called her hard working and “probably my best friend.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Leisure said she is proud of her community and wants other residents to share that pride. That drives her to work at making things better.

When a mom-and-pop five-and-dime store closed in the late 1990s, she and Rick owned the building. They decided to replace it with the National Road Antique Mall, where about 95 vendors sell vintage items. In the 25 years since, many downtown buildings have been renovated and the town is now promoted as Antique Alley.

When she first became Chamber president, she said it had become largely a committee in charge of Canal Days. She wanted to see it involved in reshaping downtown. She recalled many local businesses from her childhood — dry cleaners, dress shops, grocery stores — which had closed after big department stores opened in nearby cities. She didn’t want her town to become another Indiana Main Street lined with boarded-over business windows.

“Some people may be critical (because the local stores closed) but we have places that people visit. You can sit downtown about any day and you’d be surprised by where the license plates are from on the cars visiting Cambridge City,” she said, adding, “If they’re here, they are spending money here on gas and food.”

Family members joined Beth Leisure, front row center, after she received the Cambridge City Citizen of the Year award on Dec. 5. From left are son Nick, husband Rick, grandson Grandt, Beth, grandson Quentin and daughter Sarah Pierre. Photo by Bob Hansen

That mission of keeping the town’s business interests alive spurred her to get involved with the EDC and the Tourism Board. Both of those groups, partly funded by taxes, must represent all parts of the county, she said. “We’re just as much a part of the county as anyone else,” says Leisure.

She will be 66 in three years when her County Council term ends. Leisure hasn’t decided whether she will seek election to a third term. But she is looking forward to retirement if she and Rick can sell their businesses. It’s likely she will remain involved in Cambridge City and county life even after that, though. When she turned over the Chamber presidency to Tamra Davis, she agreed to stay on as vice president for a year. Continuity is important, she said.

Among more than 60 guests at the Kiwanis Club dinner were most members of the County Council and all three Wayne County Commissioners. The couple’s two grown children remained hidden from her until after the presentation. Son Nick Leisure of Cambridge City came with his sons, Quentin and Grandt. Daughter Sarah Pierre drove in from Louisville, Kentucky, where she and her husband have five children.

Citizen of the Year has been presented annually since 1961, originally by the Evening Kiwanis Club. The New Day Club took over in 2021 when the Evening Club dissolved. 

The honoree is chosen by a committee that includes the last seven recipients. Kiwanis Club President Nathan Ulerick led a remembrance for the 2022 recipient, Julia Henderson, who died in June. Her son, Arlen Henderson, helped with the award presentation.

Held at the Golay Community Center, the program included two songs by a dozen members of the Community Choir led by Beth Bowman.

Lincoln Middle/High School Key Club members served the Citizen of the Year meal. From left are faculty co-sponsor Ross Ferguson and students Princess Maddagan, Autumn Magill, Brody Ulerick, Crista Parker, Aubrey Trent, Paige Lunsford, Chevelle Rose and Isabelle Gross. Photo by Bob Hansen

Youth members of two groups sponsored by the club helped with the event. Lincoln Middle/High School Key Club student members served the meal and cleaned up. Scouts from Pack 6 and Troop 6 presented the opening flag ceremony.

Ulerick said the Kiwanis Club welcomes visitors and prospective members. It meets for breakfast at 6:45 a.m. Fridays, usually in the Golay Center.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 13 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Bob Hansen is a reporter for the Western Wayne News.