Tribute to the late Rupert Leuner

Noy Pullen remembers Rupert Leuner (21 March 1930 – 2 December 2019), who played an integral role in growing Diabetes South Africa and started Diabetes Focus.


If there was anyone who was passionate about diabetes, it was Rupert Leuner. From the moment he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, in 1991, he set about finding a support structure that would make this condition as bearable as possible.

Although he faced the challenges presented to everyone with diabetes, he never complained or was despondent. His determination to make life as normal as possible fired his passion to be involved with an association that would encourage and inform both the professional team and the people living with diabetes.

South African Diabetes Association

Diabetes South Africa was formed in 1969. The National Office was initially run from Johannesburg but then moved to Cape Town in June 1984.

When Rupert Leuner found out that he had diabetes, he joined the South African Diabetes Association (as it was called then) looking for information. The package that he received consisted of a very basic pamphlet. It was not long before he became chairperson of the Johannesburg branch in July 1994.

The birth of Diabetes Focus

In August 1994, Rupert and his wife, Susan, were given the mandate to launch a national magazine. This led to Rupert driving the project to get a national diabetes publication across the whole of the country. The magazine would provide an information service to all members of the association. The International Diabetes Federation had emphasised the need for such a publication and Rupert took the bait.

Being a ‘big picture man’, he started targeting the large pharmaceutical companies and firms involved in health foods, pharmacies and clinics for advertising.

The focus was to make the rather complicated story of diabetes as accessible as possible to members, whether they be patients or family members, care givers or professional health team members.

The style was informal but at the same time showcasing the cutting edge of the latest research. Well-known diabetologists like Dr Francois Bonnici, Dr Mac Robertson, Dr Larry Distiller and Dr Jeff Wing contributed as well as professional dietitians, podiatrists, psychologists and patients themselves.

The first issue of Diabetes Focus

The name chosen for the publication was Diabetes Focus. The first issue was launched in March 1995, funded personally by Rupert, as he knew that the advertising revenue would only come in after the publication of the magazine.

There was an excellent response to the first edition and it was decided to bring out four seasonal issues each year. In June 1995, the second issue was published and distributed. And so, the Diabetes South Africa Diabetes Focus magazine was distributed by every large pharmaceutical company, each taking thousands and mailing these to targeted organisations.

You could walk into any clinic, doctor’s room, dietitian and you would find a pile of Diabetes Focus magazines. These were never thrown away as the information was always current, relevant, simply written and covered a variety of topics.

In the rural communities, the magazines were handed out and helped countless people find answers to their individual needs in accessible language.

Images of the first issue

Moving forward

It was not long before Rupert and his wife, Susan, and another ‘get up and go’ man, Japie Dreyer, joined the Diabetes South Africa National Management Board.

Rupert became the National Chairman with Japie Dreyer becoming Treasurer. Diabetes South Africa National Office was at that time run from Cape Town, and was struggling with funding. Rupert enthusiastically moved the National Office to Johannesburg where it thrived and grew under his capable oversight.

Under Rupert’s term as Chairman (1995-2000), the declining membership reached an unprecedented number with the advent of the magazine.

Rupert, Sue and Japie were convinced that diabetes patients, their families and health team all needed to speak the same basic language. Unlike most other diseases, the successful treatment of diabetes lies in the extensive education of patients so that they can take care of themselves. Ignorance and the consequent poor control of blood glucose levels has devastating health implications. Statistics from Europe indicated that for every R1 spent on patient education R17 is saved in medical costs.

From SADA to DSA

I became involved with South African Diabetes Association (SADA) because Rupert, a friend, asked me one Christmas holiday if I would bank any cheques that came to their post box while the offices were closed.

I did this and was then offered the position of front of house, fielding calls about diabetes, dealing with membership, and helping with the post. Following various conversations with people who phoned in, Diabetes Focus was sent out and became the silent helper to thousands of readers.

There was a basic glossary of terms, called Beginner’s Guide, which was very informative. Plus, Readers’ Letters page and articles covering every aspect of how diabetes affects one’s life were included.

Rupert sent me and his wife, Sue, on a journalist course with Marian Sher and so I began writing for Diabetes Focus and Sue became the editor. I fielded the Readers’ letters, wrote a column called Living with Insulin and did the networking pages, connecting all Diabetes Support Groups into a central data bank.

Rupert and his executive also realised that the association needed a new name, to take advantage of the internet age and the trend in the UK and Canada; and so, Diabetes South Africa (DSA) was born and celebrated with a bumper edition of Diabetes Focus.

The birth of Agents for Change

While I was in this position, I realised that there was a need for an outreach arm, for people in the rural areas. I asked permission to fundraise so that a colleague and I, (then Trudy Bodenstein, a scintillating pharmacist, and now, Buyelwa Majikela-Dlangamandla, a specialist Diabetes Nurse Educator) could travel to the deeply rural and disadvantaged communities and offer them a two-day interactive learning experience.

This proposal was met with Rupert’s usual enthusiasm and Agents for Change was born. Starting in 1999, this Diabetes South Africa  project has been running courses for 21 years throughout South Africa.

Rupert could see that this was a way of distributing Diabetes Focus to thousands of patients, carers and health professionals and also to interact with them.

Rupert Leuner – a Mensch

Diabetes Focus and Diabetes and You, a comic style booklet in five South African languages, was conceived and nurtured by the Leuners, and won an international prize for excellence. We have never looked back.

If ever there was an Agent for Change, it was Rupert Leuner. He was an example of someone who took having diabetes as a part of his life and never let it get him down. He had been with us for 89 wonderful fruitful years.

Even after he retired as chairperson, he wanted to know everything about the organisation and how it was doing right up until the last conversation I had with him two months before he passed on.

During the last week of his life, when he was asked by the nurse, ‘How are you today, Mr Leuner?’ he answered, ‘Piekfyn!’ He was the Godfather of Diabetes South Africa during his term of office and his legacy of Diabetes Focus lives on in a new format as an E-magazine on Diabetes South Africa’s website.

Rupert Leuner can truly be described as a Mensch.

Thank you, Rupert, for the relentless way you drove us to excellence, the power of your enthusiasm, your passionate interest in the other. This is another way of saying Rupert loved his community and we love him, honour him and say Hamba Kahle.


Please contact Noy Pullen if you would like more information: [email protected] or 072 258 7132.


AGENTS FOR CHANGE IS A DIABETES SOUTH AFRICA PROJECT

MANAGED BY NOY PULLEN

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