Remembering Fair Haven’s Bill Leonard: Mayor, Fireman, First Aider, Friend

A towering Fair Haven presence has taken leave from the hometown spotlight as his legacy continues to be something to which many look up.

Former mayor, 54-year fireman and first aider, Bill Leonard passed away at his Fair Haven home on May 5. He was 82.

I remember Bill …

Thinking back, the image of Bill Leonard to this kid was reminiscent of those Wonder Years moments in which large, fun house mirror-distorted adult faces loom over you like giant cartoons. He was a big presence to a little tyke, not to mention many others.

It’s hard to remember a time that, in my 54 years as a Fair Havenite, I didn’t see Bill’s kind, welcoming smile and feel his grande, gently looming presence. He was there when I arrived in Fair Haven at 4 with my 2-year-old sister, Mom and Dad. He and his family had made the borough their home about a year or so before us. Home.

I was a little kid, yet, somehow I vividly remember meeting Bill and his wife, Ruth. They were more than a decade younger than my parents, who wanted to join the fire company. The Leonards were anxious to expand their family. They wanted to meet us. I remember getting all “dolled up,” as my dad would say, and going to their house.

This towering man with bright eyes and a warm smile and his sweet, welcoming wife beamed over this couple of kids and their mom and dad, Sally and Bill. Home. I can still see it — that big burly man, chuckling and extending his hand to say, “Hello.” He may have even slipped me a dollar. Who isn’t old enough to remember that? No wonder why I instantly liked him. That was a big deal back then. Plus, he was Santa Claus. Oh, I remember. Home.

Before long, my parents joined the fire company and Bill and Ruth Leonard became parents again and again. I also remember how overjoyed they were each time they had a family addition. Funny how a kid would remember such a thing. I guess I knew they were cool since they loved kids so much — and passed that bill with such pleasure! They stopped over our house us from time to time, thrilled, with their new babies and growing kids. I remember seeing them hold each, grinning and shining like moonbeams catching stars.

Their family grew and extended into the fire company family, as was the Fair Haven way for many back in the 1960s, before and after. I had lost count of Leonard children. After all, the proud parents were, by that time, far more excited about their own kids than us.

The fire company families were blended. There were many all in one. You families know who you are to this fire company kid. I remember it all. I remember Bill among other presences. Why? As with the other members of this fire company family, each with his or her own personality bookmark, Bill Leonard arrived in my life from the time I landed in what would become my Fair Haven. Their Fair Haven. The blended family’s Fair Haven. We had become part of that family. How lucky we all were.

After serving family time husking corn, blowing up punch balls, stocking fair booths, inhaling helium, camping, hijacking parents’ parties and so much more simple stuff, the fire company kids grew up. We didn’t hang around the firehouse much anymore. We went to college and started careers. Bill Leonard was still Fair Haven strong, though. So were my parents. Then my dad had passed away. I had my own baby and, before long, became a journalist with a small weekly newspaper, run by another Fair Havenite. That’s another story.

One day, while on the beat, I started paying more attention to home again and realized that Bill had become mayor of the borough. How great, I thought, my mind flashing back to the familiarity of his presence. Then my mom got sick. I was asked to cover the Fair Haven Firemen’s Fair. As a gift to my mom, I asked if I could do an opinion piece on the fair. I did.

She, at that point a matriarch in the fire company family, couldn’t have been happier to know that I cherished this family into which she and my dad brought me. I finally told her in that piece. Young adults can be unwittingly unappreciative. Downright rude. I was. I realized that. I told her and gave her some peace and pride, knowing she had done the right thing.

She didn’t know until I told her. I should have told my father. Though, considering the posthumous coverage he’s gotten to make up for it, his spirit must have gotten an inkling by now. Still, I should have told him here.

There is a theory behind this home gratitude, though — every little piece of it. Home is not just a piece of property and its value. I’ve said it before. No one ever eulogized a house’s value. Ever see “he was predeceased by a home valued at $2.5 million?” I didn’t think so. It’s so much more than that.

When you lose a lot of people, while some “turn-the-page” people are dismissive of grief of home and family, the griever tends to acquire, with each loss, a greater sense of empathy, appreciation and love of the imperfect perfect home. Yes, imperfect perfect. The oxymoronic understanding that every memory, every person, every experience, imperfect as each may have been, is a perfect anchor in the heart. Home.

Some people, without a care about home, it’s power of place or people, wonder why it is that I want to be there. They don’t understand that going home, with every hug, “Hello,” nod, wink or wave comes a memory that gives comfort that home is always just a subtle acknowledgement away. The family knows. They were there, too. Then you breathe.

I saw Bill Leonard at that fair, the year my mom was sick. I was trying to breathe in the feeling, the memories. Then I exhaled, spewing it all out. It was her last fair and she couldn’t make it to the grounds. I saw many from the fire company family. The fair visit that year struck me especially hard. It felt like the end without Dad, Mom dying. The grounds were flooded with fire company family members, each a good trigger in his or her own way. But this is about Bill Leonard — the microcosm he was in it all. Microcosm. Home.

He saw me, gave me a knowing family nod of recognition and a “Hello.” There was always the “I know who you are” look and welcoming smile. Beyond that, nothing. I remembered. I thought about chatting, reminding him of his own presence in my kid life. Memories always on the tip of my tongue, I never blurted them out. I remembered more and more every year after that. He always stopped to strike a semi-pose for my camera. Some still run away or give me a “Oh, damn it! It’s you with that damn camera again!” Not Bill. Still, I never told him that I remembered. He was one of my first Fair Haven memories — and bucks!

Ironically, he had cash in his hand that night. He was in the Cashier’s booth, of course. Call it a trigger. A good life trigger. I really should have reminisced with him a bit, then and every single year thereafter. I don’t know why I never did. I should have told him how he was a presence, a part of the picture that made me happy to be a forever Fair Haven kid at heart.

Maybe he knew. After all, the presence of community love enveloped his own larger than life presence. Still, I should have told him — every single time I saw him at the fair. I should have told him I remembered a few little things — things that were a little piece of home in my heart. I should have told my own parents more.

The truth is that it’s never too late to say it. But it’s all the better if you can see their faces when you do. Maybe they just don’t know what they need to hear. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you think your blathering of childhood memories will bore them. Maybe you think telling them won’t matter. Tell them anyway. It will.

Tell them because they should know they matter, even the tiniest bit … from the heart of a little kid looking up at a tall presence. Perspective. Everyone needs a little. Tell them.

RIP, Bill Leonard. You are remembered. Told you so … finally.

More about Bill from his obituary …

“A sociable man, he was often seen walking in town, quick with a wave or a hearty handshake, first to lend a hand, always with a big smile, and was jokingly referred to as “Mr. Mayor” long before he actually became Fair Haven’s Mayor. He never met a stranger, and knew everyone by name, even making friends and having a coffee klatch not only locally, but also in Sanibel. He gave the best bear hugs, and was larger than life with a heart of gold. There are no words to describe what a great man Bill was. He is well loved and will be sorely missed by all those who knew him.”

Loved ones of Bill Leonard in his obituary

Bill was born in Jersey City to the late William M. and Margaret L. (née Hoffman) Leonard, and had previously lived in Atlantic Highlands and Red Bank before moving to Fair Haven 57 years ago.

Bill grew up in Atlantic Highlands, and after graduating from Atlantic Highlands High School joined the United States Air Force. Following his honorable discharge from the US Air Force, he returned to NJ and began what would be a lifelong career spanning 35 years with the United States Postal Service, acting in many different roles before retiring as postmaster of Holmdel in 1992. He took pride in everything he did. He had a strong work ethic and rarely missed a day of work.

All of his life, Bill volunteered in various ways giving back and trying to make the communities in which he lived a better place.

Bill was a member of the Fair Haven Fire Department, becoming treasurer after his active firefighting days. He achieved lifetime member status with the fire department for his 54 years of service. He loved working the annual Fair Haven Fireman’s Fair, during which he got to see the many, many friends and acquaintances he had made over the years.

His favorite part of being in the FHFD was getting to play Santa. He loved seeing the excitement on all of those innocent little faces. He was a member of the Fire Department Relief Fund, and was a former captain of the Fair Haven First Aid, served as treasurer, and achieved lifetime member status there as well.

He was also a devoted communicant of the Church of the Nativity in Fair Haven for more than 50 years.

Bill served as Chairman of Two Rivers Water Reclamation Authority, and was given a proclamation that cited his having the longest service as its chairman. He also served as president of the Monmouth County Postal Employees Credit Union for many years, as well as serving on Fair Haven Borough Council, eventually becoming mayor of Fair Haven from 1998 to 2001.

In his younger days, he coached his sons’ baseball team, helping shape the Fair Haven baseball program in its infancy. He enjoyed camping and frequently took the family on camping trips with friends and neighbors, and was a YMCA Indian Guide at one point. The only time he ever truly relaxed was when he and his wife, Ruth, went to their favorite spot, Sanibel Island, FL.

When he wasn’t working or volunteering his time, Bill was keeping busy. You could find him in his garden, where he spent hours planting and tending his flowers, and many more were spent enjoying their beauty. Bill loved to cook and bake and had quite a recipe collection; he made every type of fruit bar or cake that he could find a recipe for and his handmade pizza and his famous cheese bread were always a treat.

Beloved husband of 58 years to Ruth Ann (née Osborn), he was admired, respected, and loved by: his children, William E. Leonard, Jr. (Rachel “Lia”), of Belford, Joseph Leonard (Donna), of West Long Branch, Timothy Leonard (Christine), of Rumson, and Jennifer Carduck (Will), of Chesterfield, VA; his grandchildren, Rebecca Leonard, William E. Leonard III, Antonio Maligieri, Stephanie Cella (Chris), and Jaclyn, Thomas (Jenny), Jesse, Bryce, and Tyler Leonard, Timothy and Hunter Leonard, and Christopher, Julianna, and Jake Carduck, and “honorary grandson” Steve; his great-grandchildren, Alyssa, Michael, Kaeleigh, Amelia, and Sadie; sisters Evelyn Warren, Marge Froidl; brother, Richard Leonard (Maggi); sister-in-law Hazel Wilkins and brother-in-law Glenn Osborn (Mary Ann); and numerous nieces and nephews, especially Nancy and George Balina.

Bill was predeceased by: sisters Geraldine Slocum and Doris Brown; brothers, Thomas, James and Robert Leonard.

Special thanks to Shelly and Maria for their loving and compassionate care, and also to the hospice nurses that provided comfort and support.

In lieu of flowers, please consider make a memorial donation in Bill’s name to the Fair Haven Fire Department, or to the Alzheimer’s Association.

A Memorial Mass and celebration of life will be announced at a later date.

John Caroli
BCS Wealth Management