Between alarms, you might have seen Lt. Leroy Hearon gliding around his Chicago firehouse, perfecting the steps to the tango, a dance that whirled him around the world.
Tango first entranced Mr. Hearon more than 25 years ago, when he arrived at Club 720 on Wells Street expecting some bubbly, bouncy salsa. When he saw the Argentinian art form — sensual, melancholy and urgent — he instantly was determined to learn it.
“I call it a tangasm,” he said in a 2002 story in the Los Angeles Times.
He used to say, “If I’m not at the firehouse, I’m at tango,” according to his friend Phoebe Grant, a fellow tango instructor.
Eventually, he taught tango and would travel every year to Buenos Aires, staying for weeks to take lessons and perform at dance halls.
“He would dance at as many as five places, tango dance halls, different places in town, till 6 in the morning,” 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 June 11 at Saints Mary and Elizabeth Hospital Center of pneumonia after contracting the coronavirus, according to his sister Felicia Hearon, who said he also had other health issues.
“Everybody in Buenos Aires knew him,” said his friend Ray Barbosa, a Chicago lawyer and tango dancer. “He was always taking classes.”
“Always the first on the dance floor, embracing everyone,” said tango instructor Fabian Salas, a Buenos Aires native and organizer of the world tango festival known as Congreso Internacional de Tango Argentino, or CITA. “Leroy Hearon was a true milonguero” — a devotee of the chest-to-chest, “close embrace” style of tango.
“Leroy had a fan club that was global,” Howard said. “Leroy would dance with anybody at any level and make them feel like a queen.”
“Unlike the vast majority of experienced dancers,” Grant said, “Leroy paid attention to those women who weren’t dancing much on any given evening and made a point of dancing with them as well as beginners.”
Tango “lets a man showcase a woman and make himself absolutely invisible,” Mr. Hearon told the Christian Science Monitor in a 1997 story about ballroom dance. “It is also a very happy dance. There is no way a man can be a gentleman doing the tango with a lady.“
Even when his weight approached 300 pounds, “He was absolutely catlike,” Howard said.
His 84-year-old mother Ernestine died April 29 of natural causes, according to his sister, and he fell ill three days later. He was hospitalized for about 45 days.
“Every day, my heart was breaking,” she said.
During a final visit, all she could do was “look through a window” and see him there, sedated.
Young Leroy grew up in public housing at Cabrini-Green on the Near North Side. His mother, a data entry operator, was from Greenwood, Mississippi. His father Leroy Sr., from the nearby town of Drew, Mississippi, was a truck driver for Inland Steel.
He attended St. Joseph’s grade school at 1065 N. Orleans St. When he wasn’t involved in soccer and hockey, he liked playing at Seward Park and eating his mother’s rice pudding and peach cobbler.
He also was a devoted “Star Trek” fan who, when he watched science fiction movies, would complain if they got warp speed wrong, his sister said.
After graduating from Gordon Tech High School, he attended the prep school at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. He returned home after a year or so, his sister said, after the death of their father.
At 22, he scored high on both the Chicago police and fire exams, his sister said, but the Chicago Fire Department was taking recruits at the time, so he entered the fire academy.
He climbed the ranks to lieutenant, and his assignments included stints in Uptown and at O’Hare Airport and Midway Airport, Grant said. Before retiring at 55, he worked in the Fire Prevention Bureau.
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 started going to Buenos Aires for the yearly world tango festival. On his last trip for that, in 2017, he collapsed as a result of diabetes at the apartment where he was staying. Some of his international tango buddies realized he was missing and convinced authorities to enter the Argentinian apartment.
“They all broke the door down,” Grant said, and his friends got him to a hospital, negotiated his care and arranged his trip home to the United States.
Services are pending.