Cleburne Times-Review, Cleburne, TX

Features / Living

April 13, 2014

The story of Leonard J. “Big Bear” Beal

Namesake of museum under construction

Johnson County —

This article first appeared in the Sept. 10, 2006, edition of the Times-Review. The late Leonard J. “Big Bear” Beal of Grandview will be remembered with a museum under construction at the Chisholm Trail Outdoor Museum on U.S. 67.

Bear, who lives near Grandview, 83, showed me around his place. Everything he had in storage was once a part of an old-time cabin museum, stagecoach depot, trading post and Indian village he built and operated in Torrance, Calif.

It didn’t take long, however, to sense that Bear hadn’t moved his heart here yet. 

He shared poignant memories. The one-quarter Cherokee spent 50 years in California. He said he helped establish the Los Angeles Indian Center and was chief of the Lumbee Nation. He was a movie extra for 20 years, on TV’s “Guns of Paradise” for five years, a professional wrestler, a Spanish teacher for adult education, a police officer in Torrance, a member of a country music band, a Mason and Shriner and a steam locomotive engineer.

His childhood past was not what I expected.

Bear, born in Texarkana in 1923, was the only child of a half-Cherokee mother and an Irish father. His father, Leonard J. Beal Sr., worked for the WPA and later became the stock manager of a variety store.

His mother, Madie Kelley Beal, the daughter of a doctor, was a practical nurse who gladly made house calls. Bear showed me her nurse’s bag, instruments and even medications that had never been opened.

“Mother was such a loving person,” he said. “She was willing to help every race of people. In fact, she helped African-Americans more than anyone else. She was also a collector of perfume bottles — hundreds of them. I have them all now.”

Bear collected little-boy things as a child, but had no interest then in real collector’s items or artifacts. He made a bow when he was in Boy Scouts and has it today. Mostly he loved to fish. 

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