WHEN RICHARD Leek went to teach at Girard College, he found what many people spend their lives searching for: a fulfilling way to make a difference in others' lives.

In this case, the others were students from single-parent and low-income homes, many desperate for the touch of a caring mentor to guide them into challenging lives.

Rick, as he was known to family and friends, filled that role as both teacher and coach, not only stimulating young minds but giving his charges pride in their accomplishments.

Richard Leek, whose concern for others led him to shovel neighbors' walks after snowstorms or buy sneakers for a kid who couldn't afford to buy his own, a rabid sports fan who would tune in to sports radio even in the bathroom, collapsed and died Sunday in his home in Merion Station. He had turned 58 on Valentine's Day.

"If you couldn't get along with Rick, there was something wrong with you," said Jeff Horn, who grew up with Rick in West Philadelphia. "He was the epitome of what a friend is. I felt lucky to have had him as a friend."

Rick and Jeff were childhood buddies, along with Prentice Cole. They lived near each other in the Garden Court section. Jeff and Prentice both went on to work for the Daily News, Jeff as an editorial assistant and Prentice as a photographer.

They attended Henry Charles Lea Elementary School, and Rick went on to Central High.

The boys lived and died with the successes and failures of the local sports teams, suffered together in 1964 with the collapse of the Phillies, celebrated with the Flyers' Stanley Cup victories in 1974 and '75, and the 76ers' NBA championship in 1967.

"You name it, we watched it," Rick's wife, the former Cindy Miller, said of their mutual sports enthusiasm. "We even watched girls softball."

Rick got a relatively late start in teaching. He graduated from Temple University with a bachelor's in political science.

He went to work for the Social Security office at 3rd and Spring Garden streets, where he met his wife.

"We had been dating, and one day he came to me and said we would have to put off future plans because he wanted to go back to Temple for a master's in education."

He started teaching at Girard College in 1988, and he and Cindy were married in 1991.

Rick was head coach of varsity indoor track and outdoor track and field. He specialized in the long jump, and took his teams to regional and state championships.

He was the first coach inducted into the Girard College Alumni Hall of Fame, and was recognized in 2012 as one of three teachers cited by Mayor Nutter as Teachers of the Year.

"Rick was our social director," said Jeff Horn, who went on to a teaching career after the Daily News. "He got everybody together, with parties, road trips and an annual Christmas party."

"We were raised to take care of our neighbors," said Prentice Cole, who ran a ribs restaurant and now works for StoneMor, a cemetery-products company. "Everybody was our parents. We had to mind everybody."

It was from this neighborly atmosphere that Rick Leek emerged as one who was more concerned for others than himself.

"He was smart, engaging, a great, great teacher," said longtime friend Irv Levy. "Every Sunday morning we would go to Hymie's delicatessen for the super bonanza platter of Jewish delicacies."

"He was the most unique person I ever met," his wife said. "He was fun-loving, he loved his Temptations, he knew opera, his tastes were eclectic. He was dedicated to helping others."

At Girard, Rick drummed into his students his mantra: "Don't lie, don't cheat, don't steal."

He posted it in all his classrooms, and the results he got from his students showed that many took it to heart.

His wife is his only survivor.

Services: 7 p.m. Sunday at Goldsteins Rosenberg Raphael Sacks Funeral Home, 6410 N. Broad St. Friends may call from 5 to 7 p.m. Burial will be private.

Memorial donations may be made to the Richard Leek Fund, c/o Girard College Alumni Association, 2101 S. College Ave., Philadelphia 19121.