A man whose dedication to his community was absolute

Dave Burket
Voice Publisher

Unlike many in Pelham and beyond, I only ever knew Ron Leavens as the owner of the Fonthill PetValu, and as a former mayor. I wasn’t lucky enough to have him as a teacher, or a colleague. But it was enough—enough to know what a remarkably generous, intelligent, empathetic man he was.

Several years go, moving into town, my wife and I needed food for our very hungry Labrador Retriever. Ron was minding the counter at his older, smaller location, just a few metres west of where the current shop is. We fell into conversation, and within five minutes I realized that this was one extraordinary guy. It emerged that not long before he’d lost his mayoral re-election bid, and had run as a New Democrat for MPP way back in the day.

Say what? A small business owner was an NDP member, let alone a candidate?

We talked for a good 45 minutes or so, as a few other customers came and went. It was late on a Saturday, I think. The store was dark, and absolutely packed with merchandise.

From then on, whenever I had the time and was in the area, I’d stop by, hoping to bask in that positive energy. Ron had a way of listening to you so intently that you realized that most of the time other people weren’t really listening to you at all. He was also adept at steering you out of harm’s way—or, more accurately, suggesting that there was a better road to take, and letting you steer yourself there. This was no doubt the wisdom of experience gained in teaching Grade 7s and 8s for so many years—the patient listening, the nod of agreement, then the gentle suggestion that other conclusions were possible. “Right, right,” he’d say, before, “On the other hand,” or, “Well, how about…”

Over the last couple of years, after I started at the Voice, Ron guest-authored a couple of editorials, about the NPCA, about the new Pelham Town Council’s absurd personal chaos—“the Gong Show.” He was particularly incredulous at Ron Kore’s conduct early in the pandemic. The notion that the old arena, on Haist Street, should be turned into a new Town Hall rather than sold to help pay down MCC debt also prompted a piquant editorial.

The last time we spoke at length was almost exactly a year ago, although it barely seems like it. Last August, we sat down for an interview in the Voice office, masked-up, appropriately distant. While Covid cases were dropping, and the lockdown had been loosened, it was clear we weren’t out of the woods quite yet. The promised vaccines were months away, maybe longer.

For his friendly demeanor, Ron could still get pretty pissed-off, dropping the occasional f-bomb—with a smile—which was all the more effective for its rarity. He had a few of them for anti-maskers, and for the anti-lockdown idiots hell-bent on saving livelihoods rather than lives. We traded commiserations—his trouble with some obstinate customers refusing to mask up in PetValu, my wife’s and my trouble with a young friend who seemed to be going down the anti-masking, Covid’s-a-scam rabbit hole.

“You know,” he said, “I hear these people, ‘You’re infringing on my rights.’ Well, I’m going to print off a copy of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms tonight, and we’re going to have it by the front door tomorrow, and if anybody uses that line I’m going to ask them, show me the clause in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that gives you the right to infect me with a deadly disease. And then you can come in without a mask on.”

The older we get the harder it is to make new friends, and if we’re still working it’s even tougher, but I wish I’d made the effort with Ron. His goodness was contagious. We all came away better people after even a brief moment in his orbit.

Ron’s family is grieving his loss but also celebrating his life. Social media comments from students and former colleagues offer condolences and wonderful memories. We present other recollections and tributes this week, below.

In following Ron’s wishes, cremation has taken place with a private family interment at Pleasantview Funeral Home and Cemetery.

As an expression of sympathy, donations to the Welland Humane Society would be appreciated by the family. Online condolences may be made at www.arbormemorial.ca

While delivering bundles of the Voice each week, I would occasionally drop a copy off for Ron at PetValu if I thought there was something he might want to read right away. Last week I had that urge, and only after a few seconds did I realize that the story of interest was his own passing. Then, no doubt because writing this remembrance had been weighing on my mind, last night I dreamed I was walking out of Giant Tiger, and, as I crossed the parking lot to the car, I caught sight of Ron over by PetValu. I waved, but he didn’t see me.

R.I.P, Ron. If there’s an other side, I hope to see you there.

 

Brian Baty, former Regional Councillor

I wish to offer condolences and deepest sympathy to Ron’s wife and family at this sudden loss. I first met Ron in Halifax, at Dalhousie University, as we both lived in the same residence on campus. We were both former educators and pursued political paths in 2003. We worked well together in the interests of the Town of Pelham and the Region of Niagara. Ron respected all with whom he interacted, even if they held opposing views. He was also highly respected by others. He was a genuine leader in every sense. His energy and talents resulted in the ownership of a highly successful pet store business. His supportive nature with both his staff and customers were proof of his genuine leadership.

Melissa Beckett, former business partner

I first met Ron while he was the mayor of Fonthill. He would regularly attend the annual banquet and awards dinner at Fire Station Three as a speaker. Every speech he gave was professional, witty, and he always spoke of how thankful he was of our firefighters’ service in the town. In 2006 I was looking for a local job, as I worked out of town and was finding the commute to be a bit much. I had heard from a friend that the local PetValu was hiring, and thought “great!” I had worked in the pet industry before and had a passion for all animals. I got my resume together and went down to see if I could get the job. I met Julie Gledhill, who took me into the office for an interview. Now, for anyone who has not heard the story before, I hired myself and got right to work! Ron and Julie were the best bosses I have ever had the pleasure of working for. They made me feel like part of the PetValu family right from the beginning. A few years, later Julie decided to leave to pursue her passion for a nutrition degree and then it started—I would bug Ron and ask almost daily when he would let me buy into the business and be a partner. Ron would give me that look that he had for us girls and say, “I have tried to fire you daily and yet you’re still here!” One day I asked him again to buy into the business and he looked at me and finally said what I wanted to hear, “Okay!” It was a dream come true for me. During the years and shifts that Ron and I worked together we would talk about many things. He was the smartest man I have ever had the pleasure of working with. During our business adventure together we were able to attend a couple of conferences in Toronto. So there was Ron, Alicia, and myself in the big city, having to attend workshops and dinners. Ron being our fearless leader would let us know what seminars we should attend and which ones we needed to go to. At this particular conference our last night was a Toronto Blue Jays themed party at a downtown bar. It was reserved specifically for PetValu. What an awesome night of togetherness and antics and getting lost trying to find our rooms at the hotel. I will say that Ron left at a respectable hour and found it amusing the next day. Ron’s passion for politics far exceeded his mayoral role and he had several visitors over the years wanting to talk about politics and he would always have an ear for them. Ron did love his politics. He even took the time to teach the North Pelham Girl Guide group that my daughter and I run about the inner workings of small town government and his past experience in it. By the end of the meeting he had our girls ready to jump into office with just the way he spoke, and treated each girl as if they too could become mayor one day. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it didn’t matter who you were or what topic was being discussed with Ron, he had a way of making everyone feel important and really listened to what you had to say. I will miss his sense of humor, his calmness in defusing a situation, and all the talks over coffee we had over the years. I will certainly miss you dearly, Ron.

Nancy Bozzato, former Pelham Town Clerk

Ron’s love for the Pelham community was demonstrated in every aspect of his life—as a dedicated family man, teacher, inspiring hockey coach, local business owner, and as our mayor. During Ron’s term, he consistently demonstrated leadership through an open mind to differing viewpoints and always encouraged fair and inclusive discussion. Ron truly was a community leader and will be greatly missed. Sincere condolences to his family at this difficult time.

Uwe Brand, former Pelham councillor

Ron and I first met during the 2003 municipal election campaign, and after some discussions, we shared many thoughts on making Pelham a better and more beautiful place to call home. Some of those issues he realized during his term as mayor of the Town of Pelham. Although we did not see eye-to-eye on many financial issues, we agreed 100 percent on probably the biggest one. Namely, the desire to acquire land for the building of a badly needed community centre, which was accomplished during the final days of Ron’s term in office. Fortunately, he got to see his dream of a community centre realized for the Town of Pelham.

In the end, his heart was in the right place, and sometimes you just can’t have or buy everything you want in life. Although his term of office was short, it was sweet, and highlighted by many accomplishments.

My condolences to his wife and family. May you Rest in Peace, Mr. Mayor!

Jeff Christopher, former business partner

I grew up in Fonthill and became best friends with Ron’s son Shane. I have so many memories of Ron Leavens I don’t know where to start.

As a kid playing hockey in Pelham I was coached by Ron Leavens for a bit, but the most influence Mr. Leavens had on my life was starting my coaching career in hockey. In my early 20s I joined Ron’s coaching staff as a greenhorn coach in Pelham, and spent seven years as an assistant with him. Ron introduced us to AAA coaching in Welland, where I continued to be mentored, and then was convinced by Ron to take the plunge and become a head coach. As a head coach I used many experiences taught to me by Ron and still do to do this day. He was a great teacher and respected by many parents and kids in hockey

In 1997, Ron and myself then became business partners by purchasing the Fonthill PetValu store, where Ron greeted everyone with his smile and warm personality. Together we grew a successful business and right until his passing Ron was still a fixture in the store as this was his true passion.

On top of all this, Mr. Leavens taught me in Grade 7/8 at Glynn A. Green, put up with me hanging out at their home in Fonthill and tagging along to hockey games/events.

A huge hole is left in the Leavens family, and in our community, and I am so fortunate to have been influenced by Mr. Ron Leavens. Godspeed, and thanks, “Ronnie,” for everlasting memories.

Sharon Cook, former Pelham councillor

Serving the community is a great honour, having Ron Leavens was an incredible privilege. A wonderful man and a great mayor. Some people are natural leaders, and know how to work with people and to bring out the best in them to work together for a common cause. Ron was that leader.

There are a few things that come to mind when thinking of Ron and his total dedication to the job and the Town of Pelham. In discussions with residents, he was sincerely interested in what they had to say and did his best to help them solve their issues, sometimes in chats with the staff.

The purchasing of the East Fonthill property at Highway 20 and Rice Road was a contentious issue for some members of council. He always dealt with these situations with dialogue and respect. Through this thoughtful approach, and his leadership, approval of the purchase was given. We can now see that Ron’s instinct for the future planning for the Town was correct.

Although the plan for the property purchased by the Town has changed significantly, the plan for a recreation centre (now the MCC) was realized. Ron was very aware of how important such a facility was for the physical and mental health for the residents of Pelham.

Our council meetings were always productive. Ron would work tirelessly to find common ground and solutions to the issues of the day. I think one of the more important initiatives that Ron established was a good working relationship between the council and Town staff. Councillors were assigned to work with different departments, two councillors to Public Works and Engineering (of which I was one), while two other councillors were assigned to Planning and Corporate Services respectively.

I believe this practice was invaluable to both staff and certainly to council. We had the opportunity to ask questions and sort issues prior to the council meeting. This helped to create an environment of mutual trust, support, and respect. This plan showed just how important the leadership of Mayor Ron was, often commenting that we are all in this together and not as adversaries, but part of the team.

Ron was a great leader, and spokesman, with a sincere appreciation for the Town of Pelham and its residents. He was sorely missed after his term ended, and I, for one, hoped that he would return to complete his vision for our town. We needed his wisdom and positive outlook.

Rest in peace Ron. You were valued and certainly one of the best. My deepest sympathies to Karen and the Leavens Family.

Glynn R Green, friend

Yesterday evening I spoke at length with Ron’s brother, Doug, a life-long friend and client. We reminisced about life growing up in Fonthill and our common appreciation for our “village life.” One couldn’t ask for a better place to grow up. Ron Leavens understood this and devoted himself to continuing the values we enjoyed.

As we all know, as mayor, he championed the push to create the inclusion of the Rice Road development and the twin-pad community centre, a place where old and new Canadians could come together to enjoy our heritage and the vision of A.K. Wigg and Glynn A Green to bring hockey to our town. I could write a book about my experiences: the Highland Avenue Gang, the Pit, Sam Derreck and the birth of Davis Hall, the Dawn Patrol, the TFHS-PDHS rivalry, and the Turkey Bowl. Ron Leavens was always there, growing up on North Pelham, just uphill from the canning factory.

My enduring story is about Glynn A. Green Elementary School. I attended Thorold-Fonthill High School from 1958 until 1963. The building of E. L. Crossley made TFHS and Pelham District High School redundant, hence Fonthill Elementary School filled the gap when Fonthill Public School became outdated and indeed dangerous. So Ron Leavens was principal of Fonthill Elementary School and I remember his phone call as if were yesterday.

“Glynn, I am taking a proposal to the Board to re-name our school. Do you have any concerns?”

Thus, we have Glynn A. Green Elementary School. Chatting with any parents or grandparents, when I introduce myself, the reaction is universal: I went there, my kids went there, my grandkids went there. Indeed my grandkids went there, too, to the school named for their great-grandfather. For this honour and privilege, I am forever grateful to my friend Ronald Leavens.

Carolyn Mullin, Voice founding editor

I knew him first as Mr. Leavens, then as Mayor Leavens, and then, simply as “Ron”—a supportive and community-minded business owner and genuinely lovely human being.

As my Grade 8 science teacher, Ron was always enthusiastic about his subject and you could tell he cared about the students.

Under his leadership as mayor, we worked together on the committee planning Fonthill’s 150th anniversary celebrations (2006). This is when the Bandshell idea went from dream to reality, and the volunteers worked seamlessly and quickly with the Town to get the construction complete in time for a dedication during the celebrations.

As a business owner, Ron was always ready with a smile and advice for pet owners, and generous donations for worthy causes of all sorts. Pre-pandemic, and for the past six or seven years at least, I could not wait to see what type of complicated cat tower he would have ready for me to pick up (and somehow transport) as his donation for the Rotary TV auction!

My deepest condolences to his family and to this vast, collective group of people who for all these reasons will feel the loss of a great Pelham citizen.

Peter Papp, former Pelham Councillor

There are not enough words to express my deep sorrow and admiration for Ron and his family. When I first moved into our newly constructed home in Fonthill (1983) , we became not only next door neighbors but best friends! We enjoyed our love of animals (his beloved German shepherds), politics, sports (especially hockey), and our families. When they moved in the early 1990s to Fenwick to pursue his passion for dogs and start his kennel for German Shepherds, we were heartbroken but understood his desire. He was a very astute and articulate elementary school teacher, mastering in the sciences, and parlayed his love of animals into the successful acquisition of the PetValu franchise in Fonthill until he recently sold it. He was also the Board president and keenly involved with the Welland and District Humane Society, until he sold the franchise. With respect to politics, we both ran in the late 1980s. Even though we had differing views, we had great respect for each other. Then, in the early 2000s, we once again contemplated running for municipal office to which we were both elected. He became our mayor in 2003 and I became a Ward 3 councillor. As we worked through our first term, we never had harsh words nor disrespected each other. Even though we were at opposite sides when we purchased the East Fonthill lands, we never held a grudge and mutually agreed with our council to move forward. He was a great communicator, visionary, facilitator, and mediator. He was a highly respected Niagara Regional Councillor who was able to foster support for key issues throughout the Niagara Region. His sense of humour, kindness, pride and common sense was infectious. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge his deep love for wife, Karen, and his children, Shane and Sara. He adored them. Moreover, I shall miss the many talks that we had at his store about politics, family matters and especially his love of animals. He personified the true essence of a community-minded citizen. The decisions of our 2003-2006 council will be forever considered as the blossoming of Pelham under Ron’s leadership. I’ve truly lost a “brother.” I shall never forget him nor should the citizens of Pelham.

Debbie Atkins (Urbanowicz), former Pelham Councillor

Elected and serving under Ron was an honour. Our lame duck council was a special bunch of dedicated Pelham citizens who were bound to make a difference. Under the leadership of Mayor Leavens this council moved Pelham forward. Purchasing the arena property and securing the future movement of the new facility under much controversy. Always true to his word and community.

I was privileged to know Ron in my life under many “hats”—my teacher at E. L. Crossley, Pelham Minor hockey coach, and his “ready-to-go” attitude in the role of our leader, a mayor that led with a smile and compassion. A business owner who took the time to speak to each of his customers. Most of all a true friend and family man. Deepest condolences to the Leavens family at this difficult time.

Beth Visser, former Voice editor

Early in Ron Leavens’ tenure as Mayor, I left my role at the Voice. What I remember about that time, though, was the enormous goodwill generated by Ron. He always came across as a friendly, accessible, and genuine person, who went into politics for all the right reasons. He was respectful to reporters just like he was to everyone else, and always seemed to have time to explain an issue. For years after Ron left the mayor’s position, I’d run into him at PetValu, where he maintained that same friendly, helpful attitude. Ron was a strong leader as the Mayor of Pelham, and I expect he’ll be remembered by many as a good person who really cared about his community.

Sarah Whitaker, former Voice editor

I am saddened to hear of the passing of Ron Leavens. He was always friendly, respectful, helpful and genuinely a kind and caring person. As mayor of Pelham, Ron was excellent to work with. He was open with me about happenings at Town Hall and respected the Voice as an important community newspaper as well as my role as editor. I believe Ron made great contributions to our community, as a teacher, business owner, and mayor, and he leaves a wonderful legacy in this community.

Jennifer Woronchak (Gaboury), Glendale Grade 8 Class of ‘92-93

I remember even as a student in Grade 5, looking ahead, eager to join Mr. Leavens’ class one future day (Grade 8 at Glendale Public School.). Already he knew us all by name and began building relationships even though we wouldn’t join his class for several more years. In particular, the energy he brought to school every day, his sense of humour and the genuine fun he had while connecting with his students was well known. With that kind of a build-up, you’d wonder if it was even possible for Mr. Leavens to live up to the schoolyard chatter. But he did.

From the moment we walked into his classroom and saw his famous (and as we would soon find out, often-referenced) poster of Albert Einstein, to the receipt of our diplomas at the end of that school year, Mr. Leavens was truly a servant leader. He prepared us for new chapters as learners, soon-to-be high schoolers, and members of our community. He also helped us laugh at ourselves, and sometimes I bet he just laughed as he drove home after spending the day with us.

He participated fully and expected that same level of effort from us. He coached our sports teams and refereed our games after hours. Speaking of laughs and refereeing, I distinctly remember him grinning and then laughing as he blew the whistle on me for an over-and-back violation during a basketball game—yes, I almost scored on my own team. Like any good coach would do, he “reminded” me which way to go periodically over the next week!

Mr. Leavens also took an endless number of 12 and 13-year-olds (my class included) on their year-end trip to Ottawa (three days on a bus with 30 kids). Now, as a parent myself, I realize that this alone should surely qualify him for some kind of medal of perseverance and courage. I’m pretty sure I saw our parents high-fiving each other as we all pulled away from the Glendale parking lot and Mr. Leavens checked to make sure his noise canceling headphones were working.

Humour aside, Mr. Leavens’ legacy is not only found in the curriculum he taught many hundreds of students who passed through his classroom, myself included, it is also found in less quantifiable moments of impact that helped to shape our character and sense of self, as well as in the memories he created with his students.

I’m sure many would echo my thoughts. We loved him as much as he loved all of us. Thank you Mr. Leavens, you will be missed.