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lives lived

Ronan MacDonald: Teacher. Firefighter. Adventurer. Storyteller. Born Dec. 19, 1956, in North Sydney, N.S.; died May 14, 2022, in High Level, Alta., from cancer; aged 65

Ronan MacDonaldCourtesy of family

Ronan MacDonald was a master storyteller. His first greeting to almost everyone he knew was, “tell me a story.” And he listened to what you had to say. It didn’t matter the topic – the Dewey Decimal System, the CBC, the government of Nova Scotia, the state of teaching in Cape Breton, cookie baking in Saudi Arabia, stock car racing – he loved to hear stories over and over again.

He was a quiet child growing up in North Sydney and Sydney, N.S., but developed into a raconteur by adulthood. He had an uncanny ability to light up a room and almost everyone knew him as Ro. He loved meeting up with friends but nearly always showed up late, never said where he was and never committed to arrival or departure dates and times. He was like a mysterious wind that suddenly blows in – at the bar, at your home at 10:30 at night or on the beach in Ingonish, floating on his back, smoking a cigarette.

Ro earned a BA at the University College of Cape Breton, then his B.Ed and M. Ed from St. Mary’s University in Halifax. He also studied industrial arts (or “shop” as he called it) at Memorial University in Newfoundland.

In the 1980s, when teaching prospects were grim in Nova Scotia, Ro moved to Alberta, and it is there he became a force unto himself. Ro spent the last 30 years as a teacher and vice-principal in High Level, Alta., often in First Nations communities teaching many subjects and shop. In High Level, he joined the fire department, rising to the position of Deputy Chief. He was always there when the bell rang or the siren blew.

For someone who never had children, he was a father figure to many. What he loved most about his profession were the children he taught in remote communities of Northern Alberta and the Dene Tha’ First Nation.

He was also everyone’s favourite uncle when he came back to Cape Breton every year. He’d sip an extra spicy Clamato or Bud Lite and tell stories about Alberta. “I would sit for hours when I was little until I fell asleep in the chair listening to Ro talk, especially about fighting fires,” recalls one of his friends’ grown sons.

Ro was a large man with an easy swagger about him. He was fond of wearing the same two pairs of jeans and a few old T-shirts – known as “Ro-casual.” And he had his own lingo. In Cape Breton, many will call each other “buddy,” but Ro used the term like it was a proper name. After his death, it took some time for his East Coast friends and his Alberta friends to connect the dots and determine which buddy was who: the buddy with a place in the Cape Breton Highlands or the one he went sledding with at Easter or the one he went canoeing with?

Ro never forgot people, if he couldn’t get to see you he sent a message via someone else. He had no siblings, never married and had no children. But he had thousands of friends and colleagues throughout Canada; over 500 attended his funeral in Alberta. Even the Mayor of High Level gave a heartfelt tribute to Ronan. His service ended with a procession through the town of dozens of fire trucks, ambulances and RCMP cars from High Level and neighbouring communities.

Ro was rarely sick in his life. He died two weeks after discovering he had untreatable cancer.

To those who crossed paths with Ronan, he will remain a man of mystery, a force of nature and a happy, smiling man, willing to help anyone, any time.

Paul MacDougall is Ronan MacDonald’s close friend.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go online to tgam.ca/livesguide