Leonie was ‘second to none’

Leonie McGinley.

By Corey Everitt

The community has been left shocked and heartbroken after the death of former assistant principal and local stalwart Leonie McGinley, only months after retiring from 41 years of service to Kooweerup Secondary College.

McGinley was found deceased in her home on Sunday 19 May after Father Janeesh and members of St Patrick’s Parish contacted police who instituted a welfare check.

A skilled pianist, she was a leading member of the Parish liturgical choir. She played her spot at 6pm mass on Saturdays ‘without fail’ in Father Janeesh’s words.

“We are saddened by the sudden death of Leonie, she was a faithful member of the parish and played a dedicated role as a pianist every Saturday,” Father Janeesh said.

“She will be deeply missed and her leadership will be cherished.”

She was unaccounted for at last week’s mass which prompted the welfare check.

“For her not to have turned up, I knew it was a red flag,” choir member John Fanchette said.

“She was a stalwart of the parish and it’s so sad now that she had just retired, she joined some of the other groups like paddy’s kitchen, she was looking forward to all the other activities she wanted to contribute to.”

She played the piano at St Patricks for over 20 years, before that she did so at St John the Baptist in Kooweerup.

Liz Merrigan joined St Patrick’s at the same time as McGinley where she played the piano as well; she remembers her as ‘driving force’ for the parish.

“I was absolutely devastated, it was very hard to hear,” she said.

“She was very dedicated, spent a lot of time with the parish in the liturgical group.

“She was so excited, we had the biggest choir last Christmas for a midnight mass, it was really special for her.”

McGinley served four decades with Kooweerup Secondary College, many of it as assistant principal.

Thousands of students and former-students all remember McGinley fondly as such a distinction part of their schooling years.

Former deputy principal Peter Bottomly worked alongside her for over a decade and knew her for many years after, recalling her passion for teaching as “second to none”.

Bottomley was master of ceremonies for this year’s Kooweerup Australia Day awards where he had the honour of presenting McGinley with Citizen of the Year to mark her retirement from the school which began in January.

“I said to her during her retirement ceremony that I was looking forward to her enjoying her freedom after achieving such an immense contribution to the college,” Bottomley said.

“To have the call yesterday morning was devastating, something I had not envisaged ever.

“Students always referred to Leonie with great fondness and knew the significant service she had given.

“To say Kooweerup Secondary College lost their greatest servant would be a truism if there ever was one.”

McGinley always referred to herself as a ‘city girl’ having grown up in East Bentleigh.

She arrived in 1982 to the country town of Kooweerup, having been placed there straight out of university.

It was a culture shock for her as she would remark how welcoming the little town was, where no one locked their doors and everyone said hello in the street.

It came with its own quirks like rousing students to help get sheep out of the school yard to always having the local snake catcher’s number close by.

But what was originally thought as a brief stint to begin her career turned into a lifetime love that spanned four decades of dedication to so many children and their families.

“We are not just simply Kooweerup Secondary College at 345 Rossiter Road, Kooweerup. When new people come and they ask me what the school is like, I say we are part of the community, we really, really are,” McGinley said in an interview in December 2023.

She taught English and History, a firmly passionate and diligent teacher who effortlessly connected with her students.

Former principal Geoff Pledge was devastated by the news, but thinking of her now he can’t help but feel joy at the dedication she brought.

“No job too hard, no job too difficult,” Pledge said.

“Once, we had a Phys-Ed teacher who was taken suddenly ill, there was no teacher available except for Leonie.

“She didn’t have many sporting bones in her body, but she stepped out there in the mud and got the kids running around like any other.

“The community has lost an enormous asset, it’s sad she couldn’t take the time she justly earned.”

One subject she loved the most was music and it was only shortly after she started as a teacher that she made the time to join the school’s performing arts.

McGinley approached long-time director of music Claudia Barker OAM to ask if she could help, and she jumped right into her first production with the school of Calamity Jane.

She described the music as a significant comfort at the school and how she was ‘hooked’ immediately.

In recollection, Barker remembered on a recent walk through of the Kooweerup Secondary the incredible amount of detail McGinley knew in every corner of the school.

“Leonie was a passionate educator who gave her heart and soul to her students,” Barker said.

“In addition she was a fierce advocate for music education and the performing arts having been involved in all things musical at Kooweerup Secondary College since 1982.

“A colleague and friend for 40 years, she leaves an enormous legacy.”

Only retiring less than six months ago, all remark the tragedy of losing the time to herself she so much deserved.

She had plans to go overseas later in the year, she recently joined Pakenham Probus, started volunteering for the Parish’s food relief centre and was still very interested in keeping up with Kooweerup Secondary.

When nearing her retirement, McGinley said, “when I first came to this school there were only 470 students, we are now at about 1100. To go from that to where we are now and still keep that community vibe, the community values. That’s what I’ve always promoted, what I’ve always believed in.”