14 July 1961 – 29 May 2022
Hundreds of people packed into the Mangawhai Recreation Centre on June 6 for the funeral of Mangawhai Volunteer Fire Brigade chief fire officer (CFO) Rob Leslie, who died suddenly at his home on May 29 at the age of 60.
Following the arrival of his casket on a fire truck and a parade of honour by emergency service personnel, the service was led by Rob’s close friend Dale Felton, who said he was the man you would want by your side in any situation.
“He was as strong as an ox and could fix just about anything – he was a strong, rugged, tough, dependable guy, but also loving, gentle and patient, who cared deeply for his wife, family, friends and community,” he said. “He was always up for a challenge, and unbelievably good when the chips were down. He was larger than life and loved a good time.”
Rob was born to Ken and Jan Leslie at Warkworth Hospital and grew up on the family farm at Browns Road, Hakaru.
In the eulogy, his brother Steve recalled that Rob’s passion for “anything with wheels” started early, spending all the time he could with his Dad on a bulldozer or in a truck.
At nine, he contracted osteomyelitis, a bone infection, that prevented him playing any sport at school.
However, as soon as he was able, he took up rugby and played for the Eastern team in Kaiwaka, where he was known for fearless tackling.
That was the start of a lifetime love of sport and adventure that included racing off-road vehicles, skydiving, bungee jumping, road cycling, sailing and driving anything fast.
After attending Otamatea High School, Rob did an automotive apprenticeship at Hoyles in Kaiwaka, then worked on pipeline installation before getting into silviculture and forestry with his other brother, Ian.
This was the beginning of a long career in forestry and eventually logging, building a successful business and he was respected throughout the industry.
Fire and Emergency’s Northland district manager Wipari Henwood led fire brigade tributes to his 34 years of service, which started at Kaiwaka in 1988, where he rose to become deputy chief fire officer, and at Mangawhai as CFO since 2015. He said he was instrumental in rebuilding the brigade and its new fire station.
Speaking in te reo Maori and English, Henwood praised Rob’s dedication and his mana.
“Mana is prestige, integrity, influence, status, charisma – it give a person the power to lead and to organise,” he said. “A great totara has fallen in the forest of Tane.”
Kaiwaka chief fire officer John Bowmar said Leslie was a good trainer, very practical and could drive anything, especially at speed. He raised a laugh when he recalled him invoking the wrath of some ‘keyboard warriors’ in Mangawhai, who accused him of driving along Insley Street at 160km/h.
“He told me they’d got that wrong – it was over 200,” he said.
Leslie’s deputy CFO at Mangawhai, Graham Kerrigan, said he was the best of leaders – reliable, honest – “sometimes quite honest” – fun to be with, and there was nothing more reassuring than jumping in the fire truck and knowing that he’d got everyone’s back as well as the wheel.
“He was just an awesome dude,” he said.
The most heartfelt tribute came from Rob’s wife, Michele, who spoke movingly about their “deeply loving” relationship that was based on mutual respect and positivity, after they met at a rugby game in 2013.
“I’m grateful to have had nine years of love that most people will never experience in a lifetime. And I’m grateful that he lived every day so fully,” she said.
Rob Leslie is survived by his wife Michele, “bonus daughter” Kathryn, his mother Jan, siblings Steve, Ian and Sharon, and nephews and nieces Joshua, Jacob, Caitlin, Rebecca and Jemma.