On 21 July 2017, while on holiday with my Mum in Lanzarote, we sat down for a meal at a seafront restaurant. A few minutes later, my Mum exclaimed that someone had just walked over her grave and she gave a visible and quite disturbing shudder.
Little did we realise then that at that exact same time, back in St Helens, a family tragedy was unfolding.
Several days later, back in England, my Mum received a phone call from her cousin, Judith. She told her that her brother (another cousin of my Mum) Leonard had been walking down Crab Street in St Helens to feed a friend’s cat whilst his friend was on holiday. Two youths approached, both drunk, and asked Len for a cigarette. When Len replied that he didn’t smoke, one of the youths punched him hard in the face. Len fell to the ground smashing his skull on the kerb. The youths ran off, Len unconscious, his brain dying.
I took my Mum to see Len in the Walton Centre at Aintree Hospital. He was so peaceful, being kept alive by machine, but with no chance of survival. We said our personal goodbyes and left. We were silent on the way home.
Leonard Thurston Saunders died on 30 July 2017, the innocent victim of a single unprovoked punch to the head. He was 65 years old.
He did not deserve to die this way. He did not deserve even to be punched. Nobody does. Ever.
In the days following, national, regional and local TV, radio and news press reported the story.
They reported how a 17 year old was arrested and pleaded guilty to manslaughter for Len’s death, and is now serving a four year sentence.. so low because of his age. What price is a life? But this article is not about the perpetrator but the victim.
Thankfully, the media also painted a beautiful picture of Len, one of which his family, including me, didn’t know. BBC North West Tonight even had a ten minute article about him.
Len, it appears, was a local community hero in the St Helens area and beyond.
Now I knew Len was a keen conservationist, a poet and a part time actor. I once worked with him when I was employed by the Groundwork Trust some 18 years ago, where he did some volunteering. I knew about his volunteer work with the orphanages of Romania, and that he was somehow involved in a community cinema in St Helens, but really that was all.
In fact I am ashamed to say that sometimes if I saw him in town I would hide to avoid talking to him because I knew I would be there forever as he enthused about what he was doing next. I will always regret doing this as sadly it is only since his death that I have realised what a truly amazing and selfless man he was. Sorry Len.
Len volunteered for umpteen conservation projects in St Helens and neighbouring towns.
He would go out of his way to help anyone - especially if that person was disadvantaged in any way.
He went over voluntarily to Romania to help build playgrounds for the orphanages there.
He helped establish the Lucem Community Cinema on Corporation Street.
He took part in amateur acting productions and other arts projects in the town.
He became an established (and since his death published) poet, under the name “Len Banana”.
Ask around St Helens and you will be hard pressed to find anyone who did not know Len from one of the many good things he did for the town.
I was honoured to help carry Len’s coffin at his funeral - and the turnout in early September 2017 said it all. Standing room only in the town’s biggest church, St Mary's Lowe House, next door to where he lived on North Road.
During the wake that followed, more and more stories of how he helped people came out, too many to mention here. It was obvious that my cousin once removed was a local hero.
A campaign was launched by Judith’s children in Len’s name. Their uncle had campaigned for a disabled access ramp to be built at the entrance to Lucem House, and within weeks enough had been raised to build the ramp, improving the safe access and egress from the building for so many.
The ramp was opened on 7 December 2017 - at an event at the cinema on what has become known as Len Banana Day - his birthday. Hundreds turned up for a day celebrating his life and as a thanks for all he did for the town.
Len was also shortlisted posthumously for a Pride of St Helens Award, and he got his poetry published too.
Len was a shining star within the St Helens community and beyond, completely selfless. He worked tirelessly for many charitable, arts and environmental organisations throughout his life. After his death, his neice told the local media that: "My uncle, Len Saunders, was a beautiful soul who dedicated his life to charity and volunteering work. He was a talented actor, poet and musician who never stopped helping people, even in his final moments."
Out of devastating tragedy, my family is so immensely proud of the unassuming local hero that was - is - Len Saunders.
So what can we learn from this, in life, in work, and in our community?
Be kind to each other - Len lived a rewarding and happy life helping others.
One punch can kill. Don’t risk ruining your life or that of so many others because of one split second of stupidity - it just is not worth it.
Don’t hide from people - make time to talk - I have so many things I want to ask Len and cannot any more.
Be proud of your achievements. Enjoy life to the full - Len did.
Len Saunders’ legacy will live on in St Helens for many years to come. Not only via the disabled access ramp at Lucem House, enabling so many to access its facilities, and the resource room within the cinema building now named in his memory, but through the many other projects he took part in.
Thank you Len Banana - your town, friends and family salute you.
Rest in Peace.
Update 11/12/2018: Len's family are also supporting the Safer St Helens "One Punch Can Kill" campaign. Please take care this Christmas. Remember - Alcohol can change the way you act. Stop the drunken violence. Think about the consequences. Walk Away! Full details on this campaign can be found at http://safer.sthelens.gov.uk/pages/one-punch-can-kill/
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