Preamble: New Year, new grief. It’s been a hard few weeks. My father passed away suddenly on January 20th– more on that anon, it’s not something I’m prepared to write about right now, on this (usually cheerful) blog. It seems that opened the floodgates of a sad year– suddenly I’m encountering daily reminders that our time on this planet is finite, and it’s happening with a distressing frequency now. So it was the other day when I heard from a friend on Facebook that Cleo Leibl (nee Hanlon) had passed on.
The short version is I met Cleo (with Bob) many years ago, even before when I was more active in NOVAG (early 2000s?). That’s the Northern Virginia Adventure Game club. We were on the NOVAG board of directors (yes, we had a BoD back then). We put on some shows, Bob and Cleo were our newsletter editors. Giant, PAPER newsletters. I don’t know very much about Cleo’s life prior to meeting (and marrying) Bob Leibl. We were all volunteers together for HMGS back in the 1990s so I am pretty sure I met them back in the Penn Harris days, but grew to know them both over the years, and (as I suspect they appreciate) I always thought of them as a two person unit joined at the hip– “Bob n’ Cleo”. They were of course, different people. Bob’s treasury of puns and snarky wit, Cleo’s sense of kindness and her goofy edge. I know there wasn’t a show they didn’t show up to without matching Hawaiian shirts. Not just matching, but a visual assault of colors that made them EXTREMELY EASY to find in a crowd. Yeah, that’s the right way to put it.
Cleo didn’t just come to shows as a drag along spouse. Oh, hell no! She actively and energetically gamed– both by herself and with her husband Bob. Back when the dinosaurs in the hobby started realizing, “hey gaming with women is fun, why don’t we do that?” Cleo would put on a game with Nude male figures and Amazon women soldiers. Only women allowed! If you are going to change the patriarchy, you fight it from the inside out! Cleo and Bob cheerfully created their own spectacles– have tons of reusable terrain blocks they had made special, that became the setting for many, many games they hosted over the years. My personal favorite was their Boxer Rebellion 55 Days at Peking game, although I was a big fan of their 20mm Spanish Civil War games as well– yes, they actually painted the Irish “blueshirt fascists” that went to Spain with Liam O’Duffy, and did pretty much nothing impressive. I had to run those guys! They loved to participate in tournaments (mostly Ancients) and were frequent attendees of smaller conventions like NOVAGcon and TriadCon and BarrageCon and the Williamsburg conventions (I think!).
Cleo (and Bob!) were always very kind and solicitous. It didn’t take much for them to get involved if they thought participating would make the atmosphere more fun and less acrimonious. I will say this– like any organization, HMGS has had its growing pains. In the early 2000s, there was a toxic element that needed exorcising– nothing much to comment on, just a lot of long standing grudges and negative energy. Bob and Cleo were the antithesis of that kind of energy and did what they could to show you can play soldiers as a grown person and not make like a pissing contest over idiotic subjects, nor bring up who did what to whom 20 years ago. Their newsletters reflected a kind of aloof, cheerful optimism and rarely if ever mentioned internal politics, at least not directly. So when, in the early 2000s, Bob Giglio and myself conceived of a massive, lampooning and self-mocking Amish Rake Fight game (details here), Cleo was all in– she saw the intent of it clearly. She showed up in Full Amish Garb (Cleo style), and not only played, but won MVP the first year, by “Cowtapulting” a Cow into a PA state police helicopter, where it stuck there (and we ruled the copter would have crashed). She graciously accepted her award of a fresh “shoo fly” pie as first prize– in the intent in which it was bestowed.
I can’t emphasize enough how kind hearted both of these people were and are. Cleo not only knew my wife and children by name, but she knew what they liked and where they went to school and asked about them often. She was always a good ear to listen and offer advice, because she had gone through a lot of the same hassles I had. We were often on the same staff together but usually not in the same shifts– because, of course, she worked with Bob as a unit.
This is a memoir of sorts and I would be remiss to NOT mention the one thing that EVERYONE, everyone! knew Bob and Cleo for. The cookies. Prior to each and every convention (until ill health and moving to a more restricted space in PA) curtailed the effort, Bob and Cleo would devote MONTHS of effort collecting recipes, baking baking baking, storing in tins and filling up the trunk of their car with cookie tins. The cookies. Oh my Gawd, the cookies. It was like an endless supply of individually wrapped cookies the size of desert plates. For anyone and everyone. “No” was not an answer! Imagine the effort it took to do that. From a couple on a fixed semi-retirement income. That’s kindness, folks. That’s having a heart.
Cleo was much more properly historical than I was, but the kind of historical games she liked, I liked. Spanish Civil War. Dark Ages. Vikings and Saxons, Ancient Skirmish. Naval Games of all kinds. Chariot races. I was frequently at the same table as her over the years, on the same side or across the table. Even better was the activity they would host in the bar afterward: visiting with friends, kibitzing, and solving the heady problems of philosophy in the lobby lounge with Bob and Cleo Leibl, Otto Schmidt and the occasional stalwart that drifted in and out of our wine-soaked conversations. “Sitting around and BSing with other learned pals” might be my favorite convention activity of all time– and Bob would show up with wine, nuts, and cookies to help keep the conviviality flowing. Such great times. Such a great person.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out Bob is bereft right now, so if you live close to him, send him a mitzva of kindness and support. If you can wangle it out of him, try to get copies of his cookie recipes. I think it would make a wonderful tribute to Cleo to continue what they started. Bring a tin or two of cookies to HISTORICON (the next HMGS convention). Give one to a stranger. Hell, give ’em to people you know, like the hard working HMGS volunteer staff. Keep paying that kindness forward. Cleo already approves of this message.
May the good Lord hold you in the palm of His hand, Cleo. Our society is a little less with your passing.
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