Between alarms, you may have seen Lt. Leroy Hearon gliding around his Chicago fire station, perfecting the steps of the tango, a dance that took him around the world.
Tango first appealed to Mr Hearon more than 25 years ago, when he arrived at Club 720 on Wells Street expecting a bubbly, bouncy salsa. When he saw the Argentine art form – sultry, melancholic and urgent – he was immediately determined to learn it.
“I call it a tangasmus,” he said in a 2002 Los Angeles Times article.
He used to say, “If I’m not at the fire station, I’m at the tango,” according to his friend Phoebe Grant, another tango instructor.
Eventually he taught tango and traveled to Buenos Aires every year, staying for weeks to take lessons and perform in dance halls.
“He was dancing up to five places, tango dance halls, different places in town, until 6 a.m.,” said his friend Maroc “Rocky” Howard, a Dallas financial adviser and tango dancer.
Mr Hearon, 63, who also danced in Amsterdam, Munich and Paris, died on June 11 at Saints Mary and Elizabeth Hospital Center of pneumonia after contracting the coronavirus, according to his sister Felicia Hearon, who said that he also had other health problems.
“Everybody in Buenos Aires knew him,” said his friend Ray Barbosa, a Chicago lawyer and tango dancer. “He was always taking lessons.”
“Always the first on the dance floor, kissing everyone,” said tango instructor Fabian Salas, a Buenos Aires native and organizer of the world tango festival known as International Argentine Tango CongressWhere CITA. “Leroy Hearon was a real milonguero” — a follower of the chest-to-chest, “close embrace” style of tango.
“Leroy had a fan club that was global,” Howard said. “Leroy would dance with anyone at any level and make them feel like a queen.”
“Unlike the vast majority of experienced dancers,” Grant said, “Leroy paid attention to women who weren’t dancing much on any given night and made it a point to dance with them as well as beginners.”
Tango “allows a man to show off a woman and make himself absolutely invisible,” Hearon told the Christian Science Monitor in a 1997 article about ballroom dancing. “It’s also a very happy dance. There is no way a man can be a gentleman tango with a lady.“
Even when his weight approached 300 pounds, “he absolutely looked like a cat,” Howard said.
His 84-year-old mother Ernestine died on April 29 of natural causes, according to his sister, and he fell ill three days later. He was hospitalized for approximately 45 days.
“Every day my heart was breaking,” she said.
On a final visit, all she could do was “look out a window” and see him there, sedated.
Young Leroy grew up in public housing in Cabrini-Green on the Near North Side. His mother, a data entry operator, was from Greenwood, Mississippi. His father Leroy Sr., from nearby Drew, Mississippi, was a truck driver for Inland Steel.
He attended St. Joseph’s Elementary School at 1065 N. Orleans St. When he wasn’t involved in football and hockey, he enjoyed playing in Seward Park and eating the rice pudding and peach cobbler of his mother.
He was also a dedicated “Star Trek” fan who, when watching sci-fi movies, complained if they got the warp speed wrong, his sister said.
After graduating from Gordon Tech High School, he attended the United States Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point in New York. He returned home after about a year, his sister said, after their father died.
At 22, he did well in Chicago police and fire department exams, his sister said, but the Chicago Fire Department was recruiting recruits at the time, so he entered the academy firefighters.
He worked his way up to lieutenant, and his assignments included stints in Uptown and at O’Hare Airport and Midway Airport, Grant said. Before retiring at age 55, he worked in the Office of Fire Prevention.
Besides tango, he was a regular in the 1980s and early 1990s at the Midtown Athletic Club, where, Grant said, “he played 20 hours of tennis a week”.
In the late 1990s, he began traveling to Buenos Aires for the annual World Tango Festival. On his last trip for this, in 2017, he collapsed from diabetes in the apartment where he was staying. Some of his international tango buddies realized he was missing and convinced the authorities to enter the Argentine apartment.
“They all kicked down the door,” Grant said, and his friends rushed him to the hospital, negotiated his care and arranged his trip back to the United States.
Benefits are pending.