By Marian Rizzo
The threat of rain didn’t interfere with the unveiling of a memorial marker in honor of famed Ocala aviator Jimmy Leeward on Thursday when about 50 friends and family members, umbrellas in hand, gathered at the Baseline Road trailhead of the Cross Florida Greenway for a ceremony.
The memorial, which will be positioned in front of a giant red oak tree, is a project of the Ocala Sunset Rotary Club, which adopted and maintains that area of the greenway.
Although Leeward was not a member of the club, his son, Dirk, has been an active member for a long time, said Mark DeBolt, the club’s president.
Known locally for developing Leeward Air Ranch, a residential airfield in southeast Ocala, Jimmy Leeward died in a plane crash at the Reno Air Race in September 2011.
“After Jimmy passed away, we were in the process of working at the park,” DeBolt said. “We had discussed utilizing that beautiful, big red oak and had said we ought to clear the underbrush and dedicate it to some project. We thought it was a great opportunity to memorialize Mr. Leeward and to showcase that project and the tree.”
The marker bears a laser engraved image of Leeward, taken from a photo shot at an air race.
His widow, Bette, assisted with the unveiling.
“I think the tree dedication is an awesome tribute to Jim,” she wrote in an email, prior to the event. “He has been honored in many different ways in the aviation world, but this is the first non-aviation honor, and it means a lot to me that it is by his Ocala friends. I know he would be pleased.”
The idea to honor Leeward came from club member Paul Zirakian, who spoke about Leeward’s many accomplishments in the field of aviation.
“Jimmy flew over 250 types of aircraft,” Zirakian said. “He flew multiple relief flights to countries stricken by famine and disaster. He died loving what he loved to do. For many, many years, we can come out here and recognize him.”
People who wish to donate to the project can have their names engraved on the marker. The three different donation levels — bronze, $50; silver, $100; and gold, $250 — are reminiscent of the various levels of air race competition. Zirakian said half the proceeds will go to a charity selected by the Leeward family. The other half will go toward the club’s local humanitarian efforts, primarily the Boys & Girls Club of Marion County.
Dirk Leeward said the family’s share will go into an Experimental Aircraft Association memorial endowment fund that helps aviation students. He said was pleased the club decided to honor his father in this manner.
“It’s more like a historical type of marker than the others that are there,” he said. “It’s the first with a photo on it. The idea was to allow people who knew Jim, friends and family, to be able to donate towards that plaque and the trimming of the tree. Eventually, we’re going to put some benches under there and make it a nice spot in the park.”
In 2005, Ocala Sunset Rotary Club members cleared some of the land and planted 100 live oak trees. Most of them now have markers purchased by people to honor loved ones, civic groups and area businesses. Some people planted flowers by their trees, others hung bird houses and other decorative items from the branches. Last winter, club members planted another 75 trees of different types of oak. Individual, personalized markers for the trees can be purchased for $495 each.
“We’re going to see more of a canopy, because we’re planting them closer to the track itself,” said Diane Barrineau, community service chair for the club. “With all of the club members and prisoners from the Sheriff’s (Office) work farm, we spent 248 man hours in planting these trees. When we get to the point when these are about sold, we will put more irrigation in and buy more.”
Jim Couillard, a landscape architect with Marion County Parks & Recreation, was involved in the layout and design of the project, and he decided where the 75 trees should go. He said the red oak selected for Leeward’s memorial has been there a long time and is quite rare.
“Red oaks are becoming more and more rare around here,” Couillard said. “Before development happened, red oaks were everywhere, but in this latest planting scheme, we couldn’t find any red oaks. This one has different color leaves. It’s just a mammoth tree. From what I know of Jimmy Leeward, he was a really big member of the community. It always seems fit to me to find the tree that means a lot to that park and dedicate it to someone like him.”This article originally appeared in the Ocala Star Banner on May 5, 2013.