Starting at age 50, Leo Beuerman — all 39 inches and 60 pounds of him — would drive his specially rigged tractor downtown, get into a red wooden cart and sell pencils. He was unable to walk, hear or speak clearly, and later lost much of his eyesight, but that didn't prevent him from becoming a fixture of Lawrence in the 1960s. He was even the subject of an Academy-Award-nominated documentary, and, years later, a Christian-based, social-services facility was named after him.
After his death in 1974 at the age of 72, a bronze plaque was dedicated in his honor on the sidewalk at the northeast corner of Eighth and Massachusetts streets. Beuerman seemed like a hard guy to forget.
Frank Janzen has spent about 50 years, on and off, in Lawrence. When he returned to the city in 2011, he was discouraged to find that Beuerman's plaque was no longer visible, blocked by the sidewalk seating that had since been installed at Teller's Restaurant, 746 Massachusetts St. Janzen asked some waiters about it; they had no idea what he was talking about.
So he set out to make sure Beuerman wouldn't be forgotten by future Lawrence residents. His efforts have led to a rededication ceremony of the since-refurbished plaque to be held at noon Saturday outside Teller's. Lawrence dignitaries and Beuerman relatives will be on hand to remember the local icon, as the documentary, "Leo Beuerman," plays inside Teller's.
"Leo was an intelligent, resourceful man," Janzen said. Despite his limitations, "he refused to succumb to self-pity or fear."
Beuerman was born in 1902 with a rare genetic condition, osteogenesis imperfecta, that causes sufferers to have extremely brittle bones. Beuerman never grew past 3 feet 3 inches tall or 60 pounds but decided he wasn't going to let his handicap stop him from accomplishing his dreams. So he modified a tractor he could drive from his home in rural Douglas County. Once downtown, he would use a chain-pulley system to lower himself into a handmade wooden cart, from which he would hawk pens, pencils and other items in front of the Woolworth's department store.
"I will show people … how determination can overcome trouble," he said in the movie.
Local sculptor Kim Tefft refurbished the plaque, which was originally designed in 1976 by artist Jim Patti. The Lawrence Public Works Department helped install it in a planter outside Teller's.
Other events are being held in Lawrence this week to remember Beuerman. His red cart is being featured in an exhibit at Watkins Community Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St., and flags are being placed at the grave sites of Beuerman and his family at Oak Hill Cemetery, near 15th Street and Haskell Avenue.
"Remember me," Beuerman's plaque reads. "I'm that little man gone blind. I used to sell pencils on the street corner."
Thanks to the efforts of Janzen and other local residents, Beuerman shouldn't be forgotten again anytime soon.