Stratford loses iconic scrap-metal man

Stratford's most well-known scrap-metal man, Leo Bielawski, passed away on August 21, leaving behind a legacy of good intentions, honesty and piles of metal at his Orlando Street yard, the accumulation of his life's work.
Born in 1925, Leo was the 15th of 17 children and his family noted that he always had a bit of entrepreneurial flair. During his first few years in Toko, and later in Stratford, Leo devised money-making schemes as a way to bring in extra coinage for his family.
He was known to pick punga and dry it out for sale to Stratford's resident Chinese medicine man, pluck wool from dead sheep and harvest cocksfoot ryegrass seed to sell to the Farmers' Co-op.
His infamous scrap-metal collecting began at the tender age of seven, when Leo would drag around a hand-made cart and sell his wares to Henry Vosseler, a way of earning money that would be his calling later in life.
A student of Stratford Primary School, Leo was an avid rugby player and was welcomed by more than a few teams.
In those early years, he also bred a love of the outdoors, especially trout fishing.
"He often said he was happiest when he was fishing," commented his wife, Shirley.
On leaving school at the age of 14, Leo was employed by horse trainer Jack Butler, then as a railway ganger and later in the goods sheds.
He also did a military stint and was draughted in 1944 to the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
Although he only spent a few months in service, he was given the job of guarding Japanese prisoners at Featherston. His work on the Railways was responsible for his meeting Shirley, whose father was employed by the same company. The couple met at a Railways picnic at Opunake Beach and were married in 1960.
Despite being employed in alternate occupations, Leo was always collecting scrap and in 1956 he really started to turn the wheels on his scrap-metal dream.
The first inklings of his business were hatched on a trailer, towed behind an Austin A40 and in a paddock at the back of his wife's parents' property, where he stored the scrap he collected from around town.

This later had to be relocated due to the Railways kicking up a stink about the use of the paddock, which saw Leo move his growing business in 1965 to his newly purchased yard on Orlando Street.
Buying the yard was the realisation of a dream for Leo, who sold a lot of his hoarded scrap to raise the funds to pay for the property and was now able to work in scrap-metal full time.
In Leo's own form of business, he only sold scrap once a year, at the end of March. He would sell non-ferrous metals (copper, lead, aluminium and brass) one year, and steel the next.
His steel originally went to Pacific Steel, who he dealt with for 30 years, before giving his business to Macaulay's Metals who better fitted his ethics.
Leo's son, Phillip, spent 20 years working with his father in the scrap business and hopes that he and his mother can continue to operate the scrap yard in a manner befitting to Leo's ways.
Leo was known as a fair and proud man and Phillip smiled as he talked about his father's integrity. "He was very honest and straight up. He would never do anybody a bad turn. He was hard working, often doing six days a week in order to provide for his family."
Father of four, grandfather to 12 and great-grandfather to one, Leo Bielawski was an iconic Stratford resident who will be greatly missed in the community.
Local scrap-metal man, Leo Bielawski, sadly passed away last month.

- Stratford Press

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