Ron MacLeod: Late, great lightning giant of Sparks


Expanded from the 6-4-00 Sparks (Nev.) Tribune

You know you've lived in a town too long when you walk into an old saloon you've never before patronized and the bartender calls you by name. Any remaining doubts get quickly erased when, from the darkest corner, the bar's resident falling down drunk growls "Andy."

Exactly that happened to me about five years ago. Both that bartender and that now-sober lush attended Ron MacLeod's memorial service last Friday.

Pastor Bill Chrystal of the First Congregational Church was both inspiring and humorous.

"If admission to heaven were based on merit, dogs would get in and people wouldn't," he reminded us, quoting Mark Twain.

Ron MacLeod's son, appropriately named Mark, and his daughter-in-law, Tami, briefly spoke. She invited us across the street to Brickies Tavern for a drink on Ron, then made an oblique apology for the upcoming exit music, Willie Nelson singing "let's get drunk."

The final eulogy came from Maria Stempeck Rodgers, who worked with Ron MacLeod at First Interstate Bank. She delivered greetings from her mother, Inez Stempeck, who still holds forth at Casale's Half-Way Club (on E. Fourth St., "halfway" between Reno and Sparks), another oldtimers' haunt oft-marauded by MacLeod for ravioli and Dago Red.

When Rev. Chrystal asked for other remembrances, the crowd fell curiously silent. It was not that they didn't have anything to say, they just didn't want to say it there.

Perhaps the situation was best typified by Friar Tuck in the Kevin Costner film "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves." After pronouncing Robin and Marian man and wife, he admonished the happy couple to hurry up on their ceremonial kiss because "we're wasting celebrating time."

Ron MacLeod would have understood. The stories needed to be told at the bar across the street.

MacLeod was the biggest guy I ever met. Add about a hundred pounds of insulated muscle and a mustache onto Tom Hanks, include an ever-present impish grin, and you have the essence of redoubtable, runcible Ron.

Perhaps he knew he wouldn't have as many years as most, so he made the most of what God granted.

He was so big that you became bigger just by knowing him. He could walk you through a room full of strangers and make everyone your friend. Such was the power of the great, gregarious MacLeod.

Walton's funeral place on W. Second St. filled to overflowing with a lifetime of such friendships. The multitude was overwhelmingly male, all the guys you would expect at any UNR Wolf Pack football game.

Next to a tri-folded American flag at the front of the chapel stood two mementoes of bygone beers: MacLeod's E Clampus Vitus hat and a pre-1972 photo of Ron standing in front of the original Little Waldorf Saloon at Fourth and Virginia before it was demolished for some vanilla hotel.

Ron's family came to Sparks on December 1, 1954 from Yerington. Big sister Marge MacLeod Ambrun attended high school in old Pizen Switch, but the three MacLeod brothers all graduated from Sparks High. Bruce, who still lives in Sparks, graduated in 1958, Ron in 1960 and Daniel, a former Sparks Tribune printer's devil for then-owner Bob Lill, in 1961.

Ron's mother and father, John and Betty, bought and operated the old Poplar Motel behind the Dairy Queen which still stands at 15th Street and Prater Way in the Rail City.

The Story of Lightning MacLeod

While a student at Sparks High, Ron and some of his buddies got jobs at the old Sparks Meat Company, which is still around under a different name. The most loathesome task involved putting on hip boots every Friday, jumping into a reeking pit filled with the week's trimmings, slop and carrion, and handing the stuff up to a bucket brigade of your more fortunate buddies.

Ron hated the work, according to former Sparks Police Officer Dan Kelly. One evening, he couldn't manage a pit pass. His supervisor handed him the detested empty buckets and announced "MacLeod, from now on, you're name's lightning."

The big guy filling the grease buckets like greased lightning became Lightning MacLeod forevermore.

At Ron's memorial service last Friday, Dan MacLeod wore a San Francisco 49ers necktie for his brother. Ron's idea of valhalla was a trip to the Super Bowl. He made it several times in this life before uploading to the real thing last Tuesday.

Multiple Sclerosis cut the big guy down after a seven-year battle. At the end, that damnable disease even made it impossible for him to see a ball game on TV.

At Brickies, I had a beer for Ron with a retired member of the Bay Area Longshoreman's Union named Norville. He had made it his business to learn about MS.

"It short-circuits your nervous system by eroding the insulation around your wiring," he groused.

In the decade I served on the local MS board, I never heard it put as well. Ron came down with it about seven years ago. Lightning MacLeod died last week at 57.

He was the best-dressed banker -- hell, he was the best-dressed businessman I ever met. Long before the term "power suit" was invented, MacLeod dressed for success and made it happen.

When First Interstate Bank opened a branch in Sparks' Silver State Plaza, MacLeod was tabbed as vice-president and general manager.

Years later, when the California and Nevada corporations merged, Ron was among the many retired early. I saw him soon thereafter. He tried to hide the hurt, but couldn't.

Ron MacLeod was one of the architects who laid the foundation for the newly emerging, more diverse, more high-tech Sparks and Reno. A principal part of his job at the bank was nurturing the Rail City's warehousing and industrial companies.

This column is too goshawful small to do justice to the immortal MacLeod. I'll have more on the Internet, including the true story of why Ron was nicknamed "Lightning."

Last Friday, I had a beer on Ron, then went my way. Funerals aren't supposed to make you feel good, but MacLeod's left me smiling and happy.

When I opened my mail that day, I found a newsletter from the Multiple Sclerosis Society, first one I received in years.

I took it as the big banker in the sky ordering me back to work against the disease which felled my friend and favorite giant.

Be well. Raise hell.

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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past four years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Sparks Tribune since 1988.

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