MEMRAMCOOK, N.B. - It seems everyone in the tiny parish of Memramcook, N.B., has a personal memory of Romeo LeBlanc.

Rene Poirier easily recalls the time he saw LeBlanc, then Canada's 25th governor general, pushing a cart through a local grocery store, apparently unaffected by the high office he held.

"That's the type of man he was - he liked to do it himself if he could," he said with a chuckle after paying his respects to LeBlanc, who lay in state Thursday at a college he attended as a boy.

"We always called him Romeo, never Mr. LeBlanc. . . . He was one of us."

The sentiment was echoed throughout a grey, drizzly day by many of the more than 1,000 people who filed through the Memramcook Institute to pay their final respects to the elder statesman.

Many spoke of his folksy, unassuming ways and the ordinary charm that saw him invite strangers into his home in Grand Digue in southeastern New Brunswick, or regale people he barely knew with stories as they passed by his house.

Denise Martin remembers knocking on his door as she trick-or-treated with her daughter a couple of years ago.

"He was so happy to see us and he shared some apples with us," she said under a light rain outside the chapel.

"He had a special vest from the native people and he told me the whole story. He said he didn't have many occasions to wear it and I joked that he should wear it as he took his walks."

"He was simple, very humble and very generous - just a decent man."

LeBlanc died peacefully in Grande Digue on June 24 after a lengthy illness. He was 81.

Bernadette LeBlanc, who like many in the community shares the same last name but is not related, said he had big dreams but still identified with people in his birthplace.

"He's like a friend for us," she said. "I really felt I had to come just to have a presence here. . . . He'll be remembered for a long time."

A six-person vigil guard stood near the casket in the room lined with bouquets of flowers as members of LeBlanc's family, including his widow, spoke with mourners.

An official portrait of LeBlanc, wearing his trademark grey cardigan, sat next to the flag-draped casket under the room's soaring ceilings.

Several medals, including the Legion of Honour, the Order of Canada and the Order of Military Merit, rested on top of the coffin.

A state funeral for the former Liberal cabinet minister is being held in Memramcook on Friday.

Dominic LeBlanc, a Liberal MP who now represents the Beausejour riding once held by his father, said he was touched by the stories he heard Thursday.

Mourners alternately knew his father as a teacher in New Brunswick, a federal politician who fought to protect Acadian culture, or an ordinary resident of the lush farming community.

"I thought I knew my father very well, but I've learned many things about him," he said, recounting stories of how he was a hard marker at teachers' college and how he fainted giving his valedictory speech at the institute.

"I heard wonderful stories from wonderful people and it meant a great deal to my family. It made us realize that it wasn't only his family that appreciated my father, but many people as well."

LeBlanc was an important player in the federal Liberal party, serving as press secretary to former Liberal prime ministers Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, before being elected as a New Brunswick MP in 1972.

As federal fisheries minister in the Trudeau cabinet, he was called the "fishermen's minister."

LeBlanc became a senator in 1984, was appointed Speaker of the Senate in 1993 and became governor general in 1995, making him the first Acadian to hold the position.

Dominic LeBlanc described how his dad became the only one of six siblings to go beyond Grade 8 in school because a religious order of priests who ran the college "took some cords of wood from his father as sort of down payment on tuition to heat the college in winter."

LeBlanc had Alzheimer's disease and suffered a stroke in the months before his death.

He wielded considerable influence in his home province as an MP - tagged as the Godfather of New Brunswick for his ability to control patronage and government projects.

LeBlanc was born in 1927 in the Memramcook Valley and spent his childhood there.

Ill health forced LeBlanc to leave Rideau Hall early in 1999 before his five-year tenure was up.

LeBlanc is survived by his wife, Diana Fowler LeBlanc, and their four children.

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