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Elmer loved history, cars, friends say

OREGON – It’s not hard to imagine the end of Elmer Leeds’ life.

The walk from his apartment to the bank of the Rock River in Kiwanis Park isn’t far – less than 4 blocks. And the place his body was pulled from the water Monday morning isn’t much farther, 40 feet, maybe.

There are two ways to enter the river at Kiwanis Park. One follows a boat ramp shadowed in trees, the concrete starting to grow over with vines.

The second entrance, and the more popular one, follows a set of 18 wooden steps. It leads to a little beach and a man-made lagoon where a concrete wall forces the wide Rock River over a dam. From this vantage point, the view is expansive. The breeze lifts the sounds of pelicans and rustles the weeds along the bank. The gentle ripples lap against the rocks on the shore. From here, the water looks almost inviting.

This is where they found Elmer’s cane, his hat, his red flannel shirt and his glasses, all neatly folded in a pile about 3 feet from the river. This is where he slipped into the waters of the Rock River, hours before his body was found by a couple fishing.

He lived alone in his first-floor apartment, where he’d feed the squirrels and the birds from his back door. His nearest surviving family member is his daughter, Linda Sheridan, who lives in Stillman Valley, about 15 miles from Oregon. His son, Larry Leeds, lives in Colorado.

For some time he’d been without a car – and at the age of 91, there had been talk within the family of moving him in with his daughter.

Elmer Leeds was born in Sullivan. He worked maintenance at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb for many years, but when Stephen Gecan met him back in the ’60s, with Leeds’ white hair and distinguished looks, Gecan assumed he was a professor.

And oh, how he loved to dance, Gecan said. And music. Jazz in particular. Anytime they had a jazz festival in Milwaukee or St. Louis, he just had to go.

And when the VFW in Oregon would hold a dance, he and his girlfriend Marguerite would light up the floor. “She was just the size of a peanut. Tiny,” Gecan said Tuesday, sitting in the bar at the VFW. “They’d dress up. Man, they were a good-looking couple.”

Elmer loved history and trains and cars – he’d get a car and keep it 6 months, then he’d get another, Gecan said.

And he was actively involved as a member of the VFW; a Marine Corps veteran, he had served in World War II.

“Oh, we had a lot of fun,” Gecan said. “He used to call about every day at noon when we were eating lunch, so my wife had to tell him he had to call at 1 instead, and so he did.”

About 5 or 6 years ago, Marguerite died of cancer, and after that, Elmer slowed down a bit. “He missed that girl a lot,” Gecan said.

The last time they spoke was maybe a month ago; it’s hard to recall, he said.

For another of his friends, Mayor Tom Stone, it had been even longer since they’d talked. The two got to know each other back when Elmer was settling used cars for him at auction; they remained close.

“He was just a knowledgeable guy with a lot of experience and a lot of stories,” Stone said. The two would share books and talk cars and trains during their visits, but it had been months since Stone had last heard from him.

“It was quite a shock,” he said.

Kiwanis Park is lovely: small and warm on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, with children playing near the water. A girl in a pink swimsuit squeals as she reels in a small fish on the rivers’ banks, her father calling her name from down the shore.

It’s beautiful – peaceful, even.

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