Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • RONALD K. LEONARD (1934-2021)



    Devoted husband, wonderful father, doting grandpa, and dear colleague and friend RONALD KEITH LEONARD passed away November 8, 2021, after a fall due to Parkinson’s disease. He was 87 years old.

    Ron was born July 10, 1934, on a farm near Logan, Iowa, to LaVica and Burton Leonard. After graduating from Woodbine High School in 1952, he earned his BS (1956) from Iowa State University and MS (1957) from Michigan State University, both in agricultural engineering. He married high school classmate Elizabeth “Liz” Mullenix on June 20, 1954. Also while he was an undergraduate, he enlisted in the ROTC and served in the Army; he was in the Reserves for seven years.

    With his BS degree in hand, Ron joined the Cotton Harvesting Division of the John Deere Des Moines Works. He went on to a 41-year career with Deere & Co. in Des Moines as well as Horicon, Wisconsin, and Waterloo, IA. Over those decades he had direct responsibilities for designing cotton harvesters (in the 1960s), lawn and garden tractors, and snowmobiles (1970s and 1980s), and he significantly helped John Deere transform agricultural tractors into a worldwide success (late 1980s and 1990s).

    He became director of Worldwide Agricultural Tractor and Component Engineering at the John Deere Product Engineering Center in Waterloo in 1987—just as the recession in US agriculture reached its peak. Other US competitors either went bankrupt or merged.

    During the recession Deere products did not keep up with the pace of agricultural changes in farming practices as the company reduced costs by holding back new investments in engineering and manufacturing. The task at hand was to create new designs that fit those needs and rationalize the production among Deere tractor factories to reduce duplication of product designs. Due to higher horsepower tractor requirements, fewer unit sales were forecast for the future. This required the largest-volume tractor factories to downsize their production capacity to reduce overhead costs.

    Although controversial and contrary to past practice, Ron directed his global tractor engineering organization to implement a new-to-the-industry, game-changing design concept. The new chassis 6000 and 7000 series tractors were designed with a welded frame, a shorter frame for the 6000 and longer for the 7000. This enabled a tractor designer to use nonstructural castings to transmit the power to the final drive axles. The wheelbase could be configured for the requirements for each power level. The old designs had the drivetrain components in a structural casting that joined the engine to the rear axle. The modular drive consisted of three castings mounted on the frame: a transmission, a reduction gearbox, and a differential axle. This permitted higher-volume and lower-cost production of the drive system from the engine to the axle, and it was easier to configure a higher power-to-weight tractor in a specific model where a market required that difference. Thus a specific model could be produced at a higher power-to-weight ratio for European and Asian markets without redesign of the other parts of the chassis.

    Under Ron’s strategic and engineering leadership, Deere & Co. successfully introduced to the market an all-new line of agricultural tractors spanning 40 to 400+ horse power. Known in the industry as the 5000, 6000, 7000, and 8000 series row crop tractors and the 9000 series four-wheel drive articulated tractors, they were designed for worldwide markets and contributed to Deere’s global leadership position in the agricultural equipment industry.

    Even as he led this vital new work for the company, Ron always had time for his colleagues, providing guidance and support as they made their way in a very dynamic environment. One of them, Dave Allbaugh, said about these challenging but exciting times: “I had the good fortune to work for Ron in the early 1990s when we were introducing significant new tractor models internationally. He provided steady, skilled, visionary leadership during this complex and financially critical time for Deere. I was a new engineering manager, and so especially thankful and impressed with his support and mentoring. Ron provided personal guidance to not only me but others who moved into leadership positions after he retired. He was a wonderful boss and a valued friend.”

    One of the authors (REM) remembers that “When I became engineering manager of the new worldwide 7000 Series tractor program under Ron, he became my special coach, supportive colleague, superb mentor, and ultimately a dear friend for life.”

    Ron retired from Deere in 1997 as director of Worldwide Tractor & Component Engineering and left a lasting legacy of agricultural engineering success. In 2014 he became an associate professor of the Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department at Iowa State, where he remained active until his passing.

    Throughout his career, Ron was active in agricultural and engineering societies. He was a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) for 48 years and served on the board of directors (1993–97). In 1997 he was nominated SAE president-elect; he became president the following year. He was also for 58 years a member of the American Society of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineers (ASABE), for which he served as section chair in Iowa (1964) and Wisconsin (1982).

    For his exceptional professional engagement and achievements Ron was honored with the Professional Achievement Award (1989) from Iowa State University, election to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the ASABE Cyrus Hall McCormick–Jerome Increase Case Gold Medal Award (2011). He was recognized as an ASAE fellow (1986) and honorary member of SAE (1999).

    For the NAE he served on the peer, executive, and nominating committees of membership for Section 12, Special Fields and Interdisciplinary Engineering. He was also appointed a member of the National Academies Committee to Assess the US-Japan Industry and Technology Management Training Program (1992–94).

    In his long and very successful career as an engineer he received seven US patents, for cotton harvesting machines, mowers, and a cucumber harvester. He delivered keynote and plenary lectures both in the United States and internationally and published a book, John Deere Snowmobiles,1 as well as numerous technical papers in the ASAE journal.

    Ron was an avid hunter, sports enthusiast, published author, and amateur poet. His outdoor interests ranged from hunting in Montana to Alaskan fishing trips with his brother-in-law. He was a lifetime runner who competed in 5Ks, half-marathons, and the corporate relays at Al McGuire’s Run and the annual Drake Relays. He especially loved playing pick-up basketball with his John Deere colleagues early in the mornings before work. He wrote poems for friends, family, and special work occasions. In retirement he enjoyed participating in the Key West Writers Workshop and Community College poetry classes.

    Perhaps his greatest joys were watching his children and grandchildren grow, crafting heirloom furniture for them in his woodworking shop, and participating in their activities as much as possible. He was a member of the Methodist Church, served on various school boards, and was active in Rotary International Exchange Student activities for several years. He loved following Iowa State Cyclone football and basketball.

    Liz, his wife of 67 years, remembered: “When we were newlyweds in Ames and Ron was going to Iowa State, it was the end of the month and we went to the grocery store and picked up our groceries for the next week. After paying for the groceries, we had one dime left. We passed the Dairy Queen on our way home and spent the dime on one ice cream cone and shared it. We didn’t know we were poor. We were a team on a mission.”

    Ron is survived by Liz, their children Delaine Elizabeth Leonard of Charlotte, NC, Daniel Burton Leonard of Indian Trail, NC, and Diane Kay (Thomas) Gundrum of Milwaukee, and two grandchildren. He was preceded in death by son Daniel Wayne Leonard and daughter-in-law Shelly Leonard.


    1Leonard RK, Teal R. 2014. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company Inc.