Ooley, who was crucial in developing Exeter’s art gallery and museum, dies at the age of 84
EXETER – Two-time Exeter mayor and longtime gallery and museum president Leon Ooley passed away in Hanford, Calif. on Jan. 16 at the age of 84.
Museum curator and local historian Chris Brewer said Ooley had lived in an assisted living facility for the last few years after being diagnosed with dementia. He credited Ooley for the development of both Exeter’s Courthouse Gallery and Historical Museum. Brewer said his leadership helped formulate the agreements between the city of Exeter and the Gallery and Museum Association to lease the former electrical sub-station for 30 years, making it easier for the museum to open and begin operating without the financial burden of purchasing the facility, and repurposing a building which had been vacant for a decade. He was also able to obtain half a million in redevelopment funding to convert the former Mt. Whitney Power Station turned police station into a museum.
“Leon led the gallery through its developing period and into an era of quality service,” Brewer said. “He will be remembered as a good friend and leader.”
After retiring from Southern California Edison, Ooley dedicated his golden years to keeping Exeter the jewel of Tulare County. Already having 30 years with the Exeter Lions Club, Ooley spent another 10 with the Exeter Kiwanis Club, chaired the Exeter Community Health Fund, which donated $312,000 to build Exeter High School’s all-weather track, and was a member of the Exeter Community Service Guild, which completed several major projects including benches and clocks in the downtown area.
Ooley didn’t stop there and decided to run for public office. He was elected to the city council in 2000 and was re-elected twice serving a total of 10 years on the council. He served as mayor of Exeter from 2002-2004 and a second term from 2008-2010, which is when he decided to step down from public service and enjoy time with family, friends and traveling. During his tenure, the city was able to replace seven miles of old water mains in the city, convert the old municipal courthouse into the city’s first gallery, the formation of the museum and was a stabilizing influence when the city transitioned between three city administrators in just six years from 2004-2010.
“He had a really good run for 20 years while leading the community,” Brewer said.
Ooley was born on Dec. 30, 1936 in Washington, Ind. to Guy and Leona Ooley. His family moved to Exeter in the 1950s. Leon graduated with Exeter High School’s class of 1954, which would go on to include another former mayor and fellow Man of the Year, Alex Torres, plein aire painter Marty Weekly, former museum and Alumni Foundation president Ed Zimmerman and Leon’s wife of 53 years, Monica, who dedicated her retirement to the Pink Ladies, also known as the Exeter Community Service Guild. Monica preceded Leon in death, as did their two sons, Timothy Randall Ooley and Jaime Kevin Ooley.
Coincidently, 1954 is also the year Southern California Edison shut down operations of the substation at the corner of Pine and B streets, which would later become home to the museum thanks to Ooley, who retired from Edison after 30 years in its fleet department.
“I’m not sure anyone could have gotten all of this going the way he did,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said Ooley accomplished much for the city, even if it wasn’t always popular, due to his hardline demeanor. He was mayor when the city was caught between residents at the school district over traffic on C Street behind Lincoln Elementary School, when the city was forced to cut the Exeter Chamber of Commerce’s funding during the Great Recession, and when the city began discussing annexation of a 320-block of land for future growth of the “slow-growth” town, known as the Southwest Specific Plan.
“He had kind of a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality and he wasn’t afraid to say things people didn’t agree with,” Zimmerman said. “He was kind of a driving force but a very strong advocate for Exeter.”
Ooley is survived by his grandchildren Shannon Mayfield, Timothy Ooley Jr., Jeremiah Ooley, Natasha Ooley, Jaime Ooley, Brandon Ooley, Rachelle Ooley and Candice Ooley; four great-grandchildren; and his daughters-in-law Elaina Ooley Price and Angela Ooley Farris.
Graveside Service for Leon will take place at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021 at the Exeter District Cemetery, 719 E. Marinette Ave. in Exeter. Online condolences may be made at www.smithfamilychapel.com. In honor and memory of Leon, donations can be made to: Exeter Courthouse Gallery Historical Museum by emailing [email protected] or the Pink Ladies Thrift Shop c/o Exeter Community Service Guild, P.O. Box 635, Exeter, CA 93221.