THE rhythmic slap of the paddlewheels pushing the P.V. Wanera upstream is punctuated by a call from the wheelhouse. The master, affectionately known as ‘Captain Crash’, draws attention to the remains of an old engine on the adjacent riverbank.“It’s actually an engine from one of the early Tiger Moth troop carriers. It’s from the plane that was used to bring reinforcements to the district to help quell a native uprising”. This enthralling information comes from Captain Leon Wagner who continues to share his ‘porkies’ with another group of gullible visitors keen to absorb the fascinations of the region. They are also the words of a local ‘character’, taken from Merbein, far too early. Leon always claimed to have had three careers – accountant, cook and riverboat captain. He was heard to declare that he had one wife and three lives. He clearly ignored his role as a storyteller, probably part and parcel of all his jobs. It was a packed church and gardens at ‘Our Lady’s’ in Merbein when family and friends from near and far gathered to farewell this much-loved larrikin, but equally much- revered community worker. Leon was educated a Sacred Heart, ‘when he was there!’ Attending school needed coaxing but the nuns eventually won.
He and Kay were to become part-owners of the Riveria Motel in Seventh Street, but this interest was sold so they could invest in the return of the Showboat Avoca, no doubt the spur to Leon obtaining his Skipper’s Ticket.Leon was passionate about our river system and paddleboats. It saw him captain countless extended cruises on both the Wanera and the Coonawarra. Leon’s good friend Robert Mansell recalls shopping for paint for his own boat when he discovered that there was a colour called Coonawarra blue. Robert well remembers Leon’s retort that he had already ‘marked’ most of the bridges and locks. Leon was devastated when the Wanera caught fire and burnt to the waterline. There’s a book to be written about Leon’s river adventures as one of his ‘apprentices’ will verify. “It was a rough and windy night on the river when our boat slammed into the bank and became snared on a large tree”. Young Pete was told to take the chainsaw, climb onto a branch and set the boat free. It was to become a hazardous assignment. “I called to the captain that the branch was wet and slippery, and I was becoming quite concerned”. The Captain responded by throwing Pete a line. “But how do I tie myself on?” came the worried reply. “It’s not for you ya’ idiot. Tie it to the chainsaw!” Leon’s love of paddleboats could not have been more evident when he took on the task of rebuilding the P.S. Ruby, half buried in Fotherby Park. That work was recognised when he was awarded the title of Freeman of Wentworth. While Leon was to devote hundreds of hours to a seemingly impossible project, it was Leon’s ability to recruit volunteers and donors which saw the dream realised. The work involved removal of the surrounding earth, repairing bulkheads, re-planking and caulking the hull. A steam engine had to be sourced and installed prior to a momentous day in 2004 when the P.S. Ruby was refloated. Catering was another aspect of Leon’s amazing life. It was not just a business interest, but it was a skill that would be well-used in his contribution to Rotary and numerous community projects. Leon was the inaugural chair of the Merbein District Historical Society, Chair of the Merbein Centenary Committee, Chair of the Merbein Vanilla Slice Committee and Treasurer of the Merbein RSL – to name but a few! His catering business provided camp oven dinners to guests at the Mildura Resort and as a ‘number’s man’, he was able to assert that he had dished-up in excess of 40,000 meals. Other assignments included weddings, birthdays, corporate functions and at least one ‘divorce party’. Each would be accompanied by a Wagner ‘tall tale’ including the story of Grandma’s onion gravy. “Grandma’s recipe was a secret and try as we might, she wouldn’t share it. It wasn’t until she died that we discovered two large barrels of thick brown liquid in the shed at the back of the house. “It turned-out to be Grandma’s onion gravy and we’re still trying to get rid of it!” It needs to be said that Leon was a team player and he had no better team member than Kay who was with him in everything. They were quintessentially ‘Merbein’, but the legacies remain. Along with Robyn Blackie and Robert Mansell, Vernon Knight had the privilege and challenge of sharing Leon’s life and exploits on October 16, 2019. Vernon reflected that ‘Our Lady’s’ church will never be the same. “Leon was a Special Minister and he invariably took-up the collection. This was usually accompanied with a range of friendly jibes – ‘Is that all you’ve got?’; ‘Are you making-up for last week?’ or ‘Where did you get that money?’ The stories are sure to live on and the storyteller will not be forgotten.