McKENZIE, James Ronald July 28, 1931 - December 5, 2016 When Conrad Black took over the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1985 he insisted that the obituaries take a new approach; out with the reverential clichés and in with the eclectic and literary. Nothing would have pleased Ron more than to know that the marking of his death squared with Conrad Black's take on things of that nature.
A young boy stands outside the gate of a picket fence, his arms folded in joyful defiance. If you look closely at the old black and white photograph you might notice a brand new belt around the skinny waist. It was a special treasure of a birthday gift in an age and circumstance of deprivation during the 1930's in Capitol Hill, Vancouver. It was also the defining period of a young man's character.
The same little boy sits in a classroom at his wooden desk, the kind with a lift-up lid and inkwell hole. He was being asked by the teacher to spell a word. Having been taught at his previous school to spell using phonetics, he sets about spelling the word out loud to his new classmates. Clearly, his teacher hasn't heard of phonetics and pronounces him "stupid" in front of the entire class. His humiliation is deafening. Ron's relationship with the teaching profession was never quite the same again and a burning ambition to prove her and "them" wrong was forever seared into his young psyche. Of the many accolades Ron was to achieve during his lifetime, the one he coveted most was the Junior British Columbia Bagpiping Championship he won in 1947 at the age of 16. It was his first taste of fulfilling that burning ambition and it left him hungry for more.
Serendipity prevails over the best laid plans of mice and men and, according Ron's version of events, it was a design fault of the Avro training aircraft that caused him to move the control yoke the wrong way and so fail his Royal Canadian Air Force pilot's exam. Instead of becoming a pilot and developing those attractive career prospects, he was faced with the rather less-exalted future of a navigator. It was one of the few times Ron ever offered an excuse for his failure - let alone anyone else's failure. Success in life was down to hard graft and an utter lack of dependence on anyone - especially government. He used to chuckle at Milton Friedman's claim that, "If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, you'd have a shortage of sand in 5 years." You don't depend on governments - it only leads to disappointment. So Ron fashioned himself never to be anyone's burden. In fact, it was invariably him who stepped in to help others whether it was his own parents, his children or simply people in need. As long as you were prepared to help yourself he was right behind you.
In fact, the serendipitous events started much earlier; on a sunny day in April 1951. He was walking past a Royal Air Force Recruiting Office in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he had been posted as an electrician's mate in the Navy when he happened to notice a sign; "If you have matriculated...you could become an Officer in the RCAF." So he went in to enquire and was presented with an exam paper right then and there. By happy coincidence many of the exam questions were about electricity and he "aced' it. A few days later, Rear Admiral Rollo Mainguy was ushering the young man peremptorily into his office to decide whether to release him from the Navy in order for him to enlist in the Air Force. When asked why the hell he wanted to leave the Navy, the nervous young man replied (with the coaching of his commanding officer still ringing in his ears); "...to serve my country better Sir!" Mainguy scowled and stamped his discharge papers.
The next day he was issued with orders to travel to London, Ontario, and enroll in the RCAF Officer's Training School. Once settled, he was invited by a friend to go to a dance to which he quickly agreed. But, as they approached the building, he exclaimed; "but...this is a Catholic church!" "Yep" replied his buddy, "the dance is in the basement." It was in that church basement that he asked a lovely young gal from Venezuela called Isabel Elena Castillo to dance. When he asked her if she wanted a drink and she haltingly answered, "si...Coca Cola", he realised that she spoke just a little English. It was only many years later that the linguistic tables were turned when that same couple moved to Malaga, Spain, with 5 children and, eventually, 10 grandchildren in their wake.
Whilst no one doubted Ron's energy, mastery of detail and follow-up, he was rarely inhibited by sensitivity when it came to making his views known. During one impassioned interpretation of World War II history at the bridge club in Nerja, Spain, a glass of rioja was tossed into his startled face by an Englishman incensed by the suggestion that the Brits would now be singing "Deutschland über alles" instead of "God Save the Queen" if not for the Americans. There was little room for grey areas in such matters but in this case, as with so many other similar episodes, he was quick to forgive and quick to forget.
"Ronaldo", as his chums called him in Spain, avidly engaged in the economic and political dialogue around him. Perhaps the most amusing was the award he received from the English newspaper Costa del Sol in Spain for contributions under his nom de plume, Jorge Castillo. No doubt the editors were mightily impressed by the colloquial command of the English language displayed by this local Spaniard.
Ron gave up the pleasures of Bacchus in mid-life in his determination to let nothing get in the way of his success and in so doing cut the vicious cycle of his heritage. Perhaps it was also an effort to blunt the edges of his personality and soften his uncompromising attitude to those around him. In any event, Ron had the courage and determination to forge his own values, in the absence of any family tradition passed down to him. It is a testament to the man.
If we pause for a moment to consider Ron's dash of colour to the passing pageant of life and spend a few imaginary moments in his company we see an impassioned man. We are reminded that the growing good in our world is shaped and coloured not just by the big and impressive but also by the faithful repetitive acts of smaller players on the stage; those that leave their weave in the fabric of our lives by giving of themselves to the people and events around them before, they too, are swallowed up into the vast indifference of eternity.
It was this characteristic of Ron that manifested itself in 8 years of public service as a leader in local government in Victoria and other public causes such as Goodwill Enterprises, the Boys & Girls Club of Victoria, the Rotary Club, the Foster Parents Association and many other groups and charities that helped others who were less able than himself. The flip-side was his complete disregard for the feckless and those who depended on others to do "the hard yards." It often made him a controversial figure. If life's success was simply measured by the ability to have difficult conversations then Ron's life would be an unmitigated success. When greeted with a third-party's description of him as a "hard-ass" there was a twinkle of delight in his eyes. His drive to succeed was rarely sanctified by discretion.
As life moved on, his philosophy became starker and there were less grey areas. Whether this was out of a growing intolerance or out of necessity; it really doesn't matter. He would have made short shrift of any such discussion of subtle motivations. He was a pragmatist and failed to see why others didn't see it the same way. But Ron also had a knack for relating to people, often by the injudicious use of humour, whether it was haggling with the merchants in the medinas of Morocco or entertaining a delegation of Chinese politicians on a tour across western Canada.
As far as religion was concerned, questions as to whether he would join his young family for the regular Sunday church service were greeted with the familiar refrain; "When Christ comes down from the Heavens in a blaze of glory I will believe." Irreverential to the end, the blaze of glory never happened for him but, in typical fashion, he steadfastly supported those who did put their store of faith in such beliefs.
In the end, Ron's business success said it all or, at least, most of it. He used the proceeds of his business acumen and prescient property investments to judiciously look after his extended family and to help those whom he felt had earned it. It was how Ron showed his love for the world around him. Not bad for a little boy from Capitol Hill with no belt.
Ron is survived by his wife of 64 years, Isabel Elena and his four children, Roxana, James, Ian, Fraser and foster son Julian.
A celebration of Ron's life will be held at the Union Club in Victoria at 12:00pm Thursday, December 15th, 2016, starting with some remembrances from his family and followed by food and drinks until 2:00pm. To offer a condolence please visit www.earthsoption.com