Family's tribute to popular Yorkshire teacher to mark anniversary of meningitis death

All the hope and promise of a new millennia, shattered by the greatest of family tragedies.

Father Kevin Leaver, a hugely popular geography teacher at St Mary's School in Menston, died suddenly in January 2000 after contracting meningitis.

To his family, who thought he had the flu, it was more than a terrible shock. Just hours before, he had been signing permission slips for his daughter to attend a school trip.

Then he was gone, the 50-year-old's face splashed across the front pages of the newspapers on display at the tills of the supermarket checkout.

Lesley Chandler-Clare, who lost teacher husband Kevin Leaver to meningitis suddenly in January 2000. Image: Simon Hulme

It's been 20 years. Much has changed in that time, thanks in part to the efforts of those who are left behind, those like his wife Lesley Chandler-Clare, now 66.

Such volunteers across the country, fueled by the loss of loved ones, have fought tirelessly for new laboratories and research, new vaccines which are offered to every baby in the country.

But there is still an ignorance, she warns today, an ill-awareness that could cost lives. Too little is known about the condition, and the reality that it can and does happen to adults.

"The disease took a very special man," said Mrs Chandler-Clare of Guiseley in Leeds. "I didn't realise, until after his funeral, all that he did for people.

St Mary's teacher Kevin Leaver, pictured before his sudden death from meningitis in 2000.

"With meningitis, the early symptoms can be anything," she adds. "You don't think, if you've got a headache, and that's what makes this condition so dangerous."

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The couple had met as geography teachers, Mrs Chandler-Clare going on to work at Ralph Thoresby School in Leeds, Mr Leaver at St Mary's in Menston.

They had just enjoyed a family Christmas together with their two daughters, first-year university student Claire and 16-year-old Laura, about to start her GCSEs.

The Leaver family, pictured in happier times before the sudden death of father Kevin Leaver.

At the start of the new year, they had returned to school and work as normal. But just a few days into the term, both teachers were sent home sick.

"Kevin was one of those members of staff who didn't come home early - it was such a surprise to see him," said Mrs Chandler-Claire. "He even called the doctor - something he never did."

Mrs Chandler-Claire, feeling unwell herself, had slept on the sofa that night, disregarding a bang she thought she heard in her sleep.

Mr Leaver, it was to later emerge, had collapsed, knocking a large mirror off the wall. So when he was covered in bruising in the morning, they thought this was the cause.

Lesley Chandler-Clare, of Guiseley in Leeds, is taking part in the Meningitis Now Winter Walk tomorrow, her last fundraiser after 20 years. Image: Simon Hulme.

But his condition was worsening, he was complaining of an acute cold in his hands and feet. When the doctor came, he believed it to be an allergic reaction, calling for an ambulance.

It was meningitis and septicemia, consultants at Airedale Hospital were to confirm, placing Mr Leaver in an induced coma and moving him to a high dependency unit.

Within four hours of their arrival in hospital, he was gone.

"I'm talking 20 years later and I still can't describe how awful that moment was," Mrs Chandler-Clare says, furiously brushing away tears as she recalls the kindness of nursing staff who had taken her and her daughters aside to break the news.

"I'd heard of the rash you get with meningitis, indeed I'd done the glass test on my daughter the week before. It never occurred to me to do it on Kevin, I just thought it was bruising."

So many people were to attend Mr Leaver's funeral it was moved to Leeds Trinity University for a space large enough, friends paying tribute to a "diamond geezer".

"He really was a kind man," said Mrs Chandler-Clare. "In the hundreds of letters I received, from all over the world and from parents of pupils he'd taught, I realised how much he had been supporting others.

"I don't know how he fitted it all in, and he still had time to come and read bedtime stories to the girls."

In the weeks and months that were to follow Mr Leaver's death, the family had faltered, Mrs Chandler-Clare struggling to make an effort, or bothering to put on makeup.

Her own mother, visiting, had begged her to sleep. She couldn't sleep, was the reply, because then she would have to face it all again when she woke in the morning.

It was the kindness of a stranger, having seen her face on the news, which offered a glimmer of hope. Steve Dayman, founder of charity Meningitis Now, had lost his own son Spencer to meningitis in 1982, and got in touch with the family to offer his support.

In the years to follow, they would help back the charity's campaigns, raising funds in what small ways they could for a new research laboratory which opened at Bristol University. Through Christmas card sales at school, a sponsored walk, every penny was contributed.

With research came a vaccine for Meningitis B, then a battle to secure Government funding. The night it was granted to offer a vaccine for babies, Mrs Chandler-Clare had sat and cried.

Last year, she attended the Houses of Parliament, for a reception with MPs to better share understanding and, as community ambassador for Meningitis Now, she works to give talks, going into schools and universities, sharing the message with those most at risk.

Tomorrow (Sunday, January 19), she will complete her final fundraiser, taking part in the charity's Winter Walk, sponsored by many of Mr Leaver's past pupils.

Now remarried, she will be joined by husband Jeff and his family, raising funds for further research and in the hope of raising awareness of symptoms.

The risk of meningitis is often associated with babies and young children, she says, while the reality is that it can and does impact on adults too.

"We don't like bothering doctors, because we know how busy they are," she adds. "You've just got to follow your instincts, look out for each other, tell someone.

"Meningitis doesn't hang around, it can kill in hours."

To visit the family's fundraising page for the Meningitis Now Winter Walk, click here.