When the Oneroa Volunteer Fire Station siren went off one last time for Ron Leonard a week ago, it was an eerie moment for islanders who have known him in his many, often unsung roles these last five decades.
Statistics show he attended an astonishing 96 percent of fire musters in that time, running the Waiheke Volunteer Fire Brigade as fire chief for nearly thirty years. Along the way, he grew the island brigade from the days of relative isolation, ingenuity and self sufficiency through its feted acquisition of ‘jaws of life’ equipment to increasingly modern appliances with helicopters and monsoon buckets on call for our not-infrequent and devastatingly scarring scrub fires.
Fire calls are emotional by nature, signalling for most of us some devastating loss whether it’s a home, a hillside of scrub, a burst water tank or a horrifying traffic accident.
In the days when Gulf News could phone “Central” in Auckland to get the “nature and location” of every fire callout on Waiheke, we would holster camera and notebook and set off after the volunteers who pounded down the main street from nearby businesses and homes to man, in literally minutes, the appliances before they left the station.
At the scene the ‘Leonard’ helmet would be steady at the heart of the action, often in the small hours of the night, always focused, always calm and succinct.
For all Ron’s unfailingly self-effacing manner, no-one thought of interrupting the formidable concentration that characterised his unobtrusive leadership.
We were also aware that in the aftermath of any one of such cataclysmic events –and long after the public drama was over -– the tight team of volunteer fire fighters were probably still out there tackling much of the cleanup.
Between times, Ron polished his restored vintage fire truck for generations of island youngsters at galas and fundraisers – and when members of his band of 35 or so volunteer “firies” got married.
He brought the same large calm to the other Herculean role of his life that began with the Waiheke County Council where he became works foreman. It was a time when a man’s handshake was his bond but although the 1970s were politically tumultuous on Waiheke, there was little sign in the county’s end of year budgets. They were admirably succinct – a single A4 sheet showing by far its biggest expenditure was on down to earth, much needed roadworks and culverts.
Ron counted himself good at paperwork.
One of our earliest regrets when the island was forced into amalgamation with the central city in the late 1980s was the new Auckland City Council livery that appeared on ‘Ron’s’ new truck which had been recently purchased by the county.
Fortunately for us, he did, however, carry, through the administrations of the two subsequent city amalgamations, his encyclopedic knowledge – and often a knowing twinkle – in the search for unobtrusive, pragmatic solutions to the island’s roads, drains, its vulnerable coastline and its frequent bouts of lacerated sensibilities.
When, in 2008, Ron was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for his contribution to the volunteer fire brigade, those of us who knew the significant contribution he made to the community for much of his then-62 years were well pleased.
“Fire service aside, Ron had also been the friendly, genuinely helpful face of first the Waiheke County and then Auckland City Council for the past 32 years.
“These days his title is ‘contracts manager, transport’,” said Gulf News editor Simon Johnston, “but he has effectively been the works foreman forever – and what he doesn’t know about the island isn’t worth knowing.” • Liz Waters