Singing praises: Vigil set to remember karaoke-loving, dalmatian-walking downtown resident

Leroy Wheeler poses with Molly in family photograph.COURTESY | KAILEY ROGERS

If Leroy Wheeler were somehow alive to write his own obituary, he probably would have written that he died at 17.

"He was a leap-year baby," said Kailey Rogers, a great-niece. "He would always joke about how he was only 17, so we needed to round up a few years."

Jon Buck, founder of the former JB's Downtown, confirmed the joke — it would come up almost every time he ordered a Rolling Rock, he said.

Many downtown denizens, from business owners to bar customers, have mourned the loss of Wheeler, 71, who was remembered as a friendly and enthusiastic person who loved walking his Dalmatian, wearing loud Western shirts and singing karaoke. He was found dead Monday on a fire escape outside his apartment at Fifth and Main streets.

A memorial candlelight vigil has been set for 9 p.m. Saturday at Spiva Park to honor his life. Emceed by Luke Sheafer, it will include a prayer from David DuRall, music from singer Kimra Kippes and a statement from Joplin City Council member Melodee Colbert-Kean.

"He was a bridge between different genres of people," said Alex Vestal, organizer of the vigil. "He was always around downtown, and just a good guy."

Vestal, owner of Kerosene Skate Shop, said that Wheeler would drop by and say hi while walking his dog downtown. One time, Vestal said Wheeler brought a birthday card that had been signed by him and his dog.

He was best remembered for singing during karaoke sessions. His favorites were "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)" by Big and Rich and "Friends in Low Places" by Garth Brooks. He was also known for making friends with virtually everyone. Customers may have started out mocking him, but ended up learning how genuine he was, Buck said.

"College kids loved him. At first, they didn't know how to take him," Buck said. "They saw someone dressed like Woody from 'Toy Story,' then he'd sing these karaoke songs completely off key, but it was Leroy's key. By the end of the night, they'd see he was a genuine person."

An inattentive crowd and a challenge during a night at JB's ended up giving him a Lil Jon club anthem as his new staple, Buck said. As the crowd listed into its own conversations, Buck asked Wheeler to let him pick his next song selection, in order to bring up the room: "Turn Down for What" by Lil Jon. The club anthem became Leroy's new staple: He would perform at both JB's and Whiskey Dick's, and the crowd would join in.

Rogers said she got to know her great-uncle better from seeing him out and about at Joplin's nightclubs. Rogers said the family knew about his love of Western shirts. But she didn't really get to know him until she was older, she said.

"When I turned 21 and started going downtown to hang out with friends, I'd see him there," Rogers said. "He'd introduce me to people, and it turned out I already went to school with them."

Wheeler worked as a salesman for Kaeser and Blair, a firm that sells promotional products. He was working part-time until the day of his death, said Kristy Rogers, a niece.

He has also endured his share of tragedies. His wife, Nancy Wheeler, died in 2007, and he lost his home in the 2011 tornado. He and Molly, his beloved Dalmatian, moved into a downtown loft afterward, and found ways to continue their well-known walks. The Globe in 2016 reported that Wheeler and Molly racked up more than 16,000 miles of walking between 2003 and 2015.

One of the biggest tragedies for him occurred that year, when Molly died unexpectedly on a November morning in 2015. The loss crushed him, he said.

"When I woke up, her body was warm, (but) she wasn't breathing," Wheeler said in 2016. "She was there by the coffee table. She had a tear coming out of her eye. Molly helped me take care of my wife for four and a half years before she passed away."

In 2016, he met Johnny Cash, his newest Dalmatian, and his downtown walks and appearances at downtown events resumed.

Family members say the community response to Wheeler's death has been overwhelming. While many of them knew about his Dalmatians, his walks and his love of Western wear — the family called him "Rhinestone Cowboy" from his habit of wearing them during family get-togethers, Kailey Rogers said — they had no idea he had touched so many people in the community.

"This is unreal," Kristy Rogers said. "We knew he liked to go out on the town on Saturdays, but to find out he's become friends with all these people, it's been awesome."

Funeral arrangements are pending, Kristy Rogers said — general plans call for burying him alongside his wife. Johnny Cash is now living at the country home of the loft's maintenance man, where Kristy Rogers said he loves being able to have room for running.

Johnny Cash is expected to make an appearance during Saturday night's vigil, she said. Some bars and restaurants, including Instant Karma Gourmet Hot Dogs, will offer deals on Rolling Rock in his memory. And Buck hopes that, after sharing memories of a man he called "Mr. Joplin," people in attendance will sing one more round of karaoke.

"He never met a stranger, and he celebrated everyone he met," Buck said. "He is what downtown should be, and what the people of Joplin should be."

Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.