Ron Leavens, June 5 1946 – August 13 2021
It was the sort of late summer gathering that husband, father, and grandfather Ron Leavens would have loved. As the facades of downtown Fonthill glowed gold in the evening sun, and live music from the Bandshell echoed faintly along Pelham Street, his family gathered across three tables for dinner on a restaurant patio. Wife, now widow, Karen, son Shane, daughter Sara and her husband Scott, and grandkids Mitchell, Alexandra, Samuel, and Greyden. Is was six days after his passing. They had placed an urn with Ron’s ashes in the family niche at the cemetery just a few hours before. Included in the box were drawings by his grandkids, and a red Corvette.
“He wanted a Corvette,” said Karen. “‘Ron W. Leavens and Karen L. Leavens, Together Forever.’ Like I said, some of me went into that box today, because…”
Her eyes well-up and the table falls silent for a moment.
But just for a moment. For each tear there are three, four laughs. There are old family stories, and embellished tales, and memories impossible to forget. There are nieces and nephews, cousins (so many cousins), siblings, a cottage, a farm in Fenwick, two, three houses in Fonthill, a decade raising dogs, an early ‘90s youth hockey trip to Czechoslovakia with Coach Ron’s kids taking along their old gear to donate to the Czech kids, and a game in a dark, 1930s arena, and children of seven or eight buying cigarettes from a jar, and the Czech kids—even with the donated equipment—don’t have shoulder pads, and Coach Ron tells his team, don’t hit them too hard.
Ron helped neighbours, his in-laws, the underprivileged kids who sometimes showed up in the 25 years’-worth of classrooms he taught across Niagara, but mostly at schools here, where he grew up, and where he lived his entire life, but for three years at university. As those students grew into adults he still helped them—advice, jobs, letters of reference, an example of how to live a life of decency and honour.
Chicken tenders arrive, and a salad. The table is a rainbow-painted picnic bench, on loan from the Town, painted out in the Public Works shed by student volunteers for Pride month, exactly the sort of initiative Ron would champion. The food doesn’t stop the stories.
Ron grew up on Pelham Street, north of Highway 20, the post-war youngest of the family—there is debate over whether he may have been a little spoiled; consensus: no—but when he was a boy the family had a monkey, a cinnamon ringtail monkey, and when the monkey wasn’t riding the dog he liked to escape from his leash around the willow tree and head to Lookout Golf Club and steal golf balls off the greens.
“Mr. McGinnis would call and say, ‘Mrs. Leavens, someone’s got to come and pick up your monkey,” said Karen. “Who’s going to believe someone who’s been drinking, who’s golfing, ‘There’s a monkey who keeps stealing the balls off the green.’”
Ron’s three years away were at various universities, but that was after attending Thorold Fonthill High School (1960-64), where he played football, did track and field, was a decent middle-distance runner, began coaching minor football, and ball hockey at Davis Hall, and in his senior year was Class President. He met Karen when she was 14 and he was 15 and they were married on Thanksgiving weekend, 1968, when they were 21 and 22—and then life really got going.
Ron attended Dalhousie for a year (where he met Brian Baty, decades later a fellow Niagara Region councillor), spent a semester at Guelph, then finished his his undergraduate degree in History and Political Science at Brock (1970). He completed his master’s degree in History with a minor in Political Science at University of Waterloo (1971), then attended teacher’s college at Brock (1972-73). Along the way he worked at the Ford glass plant in Niagara Falls and Karen studied to become a nurse.
Ron’s first full-time teaching job was at Fonthill Senior Public School, formerly Thorold Fonthill High School, now Glynn A. Green, from which he had graduated a few years earlier. He taught from the 1970s to his retirement at the turn of the new century in 2000, in Fonthill, in Welland, core curriculum, science, Phys Ed. He coached hockey (into the 2010s), soccer (1980s and ‘90s), track and field, organized and ran track meets, helped the music teacher with yearly musicals at Fonthill Senior.
On three acres of property in Fenwick, he bred his beloved German Shepherds for ten years; he ran as a New Democrat for provincial parliament (1975, lost), and ran for mayor of Pelham (2003, won).
In 1997 he bought a PetValu franchise, which dovetailed perfectly with his love for animals. He was a Welland Humane Society volunteer board member.
In Pelham Town Hall, as in teaching, in business, in coaching, Ron did more listening than speaking. He took time to get to know his team, their strengths, their challenges, and then when he did speak he said things worth hearing, and made them believe they were capable of more than they thought.
After a tough re-election campaign in 2006 centred mostly around his council’s decision—with Ron leading the way—to buy 32 acres of property running along Rice Road, he was “voted out,” in his phrase. In hindsight, the decision was the right one, and after some (financially ill-advised) dilly-dallying, the subsequent mayor and councillors proceeded largely to fulfill Ron’s vision of a twin-pad hockey arena inside a multipurpose community centre—lacking only, he later said, a swimming pool.
In 2015, after feeling increasingly unwell, Ron was diagnosed with cardiac asthma, and in the process learned he had a genetic heart valve defect. The origin of the illness, however, was a mystery. Recently he and the family speculated that it may have started with Psittacosis, a rare bacterial infection carried by birds, affecting primarily farmers, veterinarians, ranchers—and pet store workers. Ron had cleaned out countless bird cages over the years.
He and Karen decided to scale back, selling their Fenwick property, and finding a buyer for the PetValu franchise. Ron continued to work at the store, though, helping the new owner, enjoying staying active, enjoying talking with the customers.
It was at the store, Friday morning a week ago, as he helped unload a shipment, that he experienced some discomfort. It happened sometimes after he exerted himself, although less so recently. Karen said that at Ron’s last checkup there was good news, signs of improvement.
“His heart valves were much improved as far as leaking goes,” she said, “and he didn’t have the same irregularities that he’d had.”
A jacked-up pickup, half chrome, mufflers decoration-only, tore past on Pelham Street, deafeningly loud. Karen looked at her barely touched salad and asked passing wait staff for a takeaway container.
She had been on duty that day, at the hospital. After a lull early in the pandemic, when older nurses weren’t called in out of concern for their health, Karen had been back at work in recent months. Ron would make her lunches, and have dinner prepped and ready to go when she got home. They splurged on ice cream on the weekends. He’d put on a couple of Covid pounds.
Ron left the store on his own, assuring other staff that he was fine to drive. At home he texted Karen, saying that he was having an unusually severe cardiac asthma attack and asking her to come home right away.
“I don’t carry my cellphone into the O/R,” said Karen, “but I wished I’d had it on me.” As she went for a coffee break there were no messages, and she didn’t check it again for another hour or so.
“He wouldn’t bother me unless it was bad. I told my manager I had to go right away. I was doing a hundred and ten down the road, passing cars, and I got home.”
The front door was slightly ajar. Despite the quiet scene, Karen, the nurse, knew immediately that Ron was gone.
He was lying on a living room sofa. He had changed into comfortable clothes, and his legs were crossed. Their dog Maggie, a soft-coated Wheaten terrier, sat with him, and looked at Karen.
Ron’s hands were crossed in his lap and he seemed to be sleeping, a calm expression on his face.
“That’s a person’s dream,” said Karen. “To be healthy for their whole life, then die peacefully in his sleep, his dog at his feet.” ◆