Diaries through the Decades

Emilie Leach was born on a Friday and named after her father.

In Opatov, Czechoslovakia, these things signified that she would be blessed with good luck and, according to her, it's true.

In September 1938, Leach boarded a ship to the United States a week before the Nazis took possession of her country. At 15, she was the only member of her family to leave. She heard nothing from them for the next five years.

She later learned the hardships her family faced under German occupation. Her uncle was burgomaster, or mayor, of Opatov, and when the Nazis arrived they beat him in the street. When Leach's aunt and cousins found out, they fastened stones to their waists and drowned themselves in the town lake because of their grief. Her uncle, who survived the beating, returned to find his house empty.

The Nazis targeted any members of the community with status and Leach's family was no exception. Evicted from their house, they were forced to make their way to Germany, begging on the street. Leach's father, who was once burgomaster himself, could not stand the humiliation and died. She did not learn of this until several years later.

Leach was determined to seize the opportunity that was denied to her family. She arrived in New York City speaking only German. While living with her aunt and uncle in Oneida, N.Y., Leach worked her way through high school, learning English as she went. She studied tenaciously, even betting two of her teachers she would earn 100 percent on her Regents exams. She was obligated to pay after missing both by only two points.

She left college after three semesters to work as a secretary in her uncle's plumbing and heating wholesale business, Oneida Supply Company. Again, she worked hard to gain the respect of her peers. "I made up my mind I was going to learn," she said.

Six months later, she had learned so well that by comparing invoices, Leach caught the company president in an act of corporate theft. She confronted him with the invoice discrepancies and three weeks later, he was gone. "He knew I was on his tail," she said. Three years later, Leach herself became the company president.

In 1944, when women were just entering the workforce, Leach, whose last name was then Braun, was a CEO. She signed documents "E.M. Braun," so that her credibility would not be questioned, but when salesmen called the company asking for Mr. Braun, Leach would tell them, "I am Mr. E.M. Braun."

Through diligence and honest dealing, Leach earned what she so badly wanted. "I was proud of the fact I had the respect of the salesmen," she said. "They didn't say, 'this is just a dumb woman.' I knew what I was talking about."

Leach was given an opportunity that her family was denied and she did not waste it, but instead continued to work toward the future. She is now 86-years-old, living comfortably in Morgan Estates Assisted Living facility in Geneseo. Her daughter is nearby, and she just purchased six pairs of new shoes.

Leach considers herself lucky, but her luck would have meant little without hard, honest work. "Boy, I tell you," she said, "I made the most of it."