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Leon Warmuth Remembered: 'To Know Him Was to Love Him' 

click to enlarge Leon Warmuth.

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Leon Warmuth.

Leon Warmuth, who in 1952 boarded a bus to Eureka with just $50 in hand and all his belongings packed into a cardboard suitcase and went on to build a thriving business and become the Eureka Chamber of Commerce's president, died July 20, surrounded by friends and family. He was 90.

The city of Eureka announced July 26 that it would fly its flags at half-staff to honor the founder of Leon's Car Care Center, describing him as a "self-made business owner ... who contributed generously to the city of Eureka." But while Warmuth's business acumen and gifts with cars were undeniable, he will be remembered by those who knew him more for his kind heart, easy smile and appreciation for life than anything he did professionally.

"He was a man of small stature but to know him was to love him," says Addie Dunaway, who became Warmuth's neighbor in 2019 when she and her husband moved next door and quickly developed a close relationship with Warmuth and his family. "His love for his family, for his life, for everything that he created — his legacy — you could just feel it. We knew from that very first moment that we were part of something very special and we became such good friends."

According to his son Dale Warmuth, Leon Warmuth was born the fifth of sixth children of a sharecropper in San Joaquin, California, near Fresno. Around his 12th birthday, the family realized Leon's spine was afflicted with scoliosis and he was sent to live at Shriner's Hospital in San Francisco, where, some six hours away from his family home, he underwent daily physical therapy. By the time he returned home, World War II had begun and while Leon's brothers deployed, he was unfit for duty and remained stateside. Living through the war, which saw one of his brothers shot down and become a prisoner of war, made Leon "unwaveringly patriotic," according to his son.

When Leon became old enough to drive, he found a new independence and what would become a lifelong love of automobiles. He graduated from Tranquility High School and attended junior college, studying automotive mechanics and fabrication. But Dale Warmuth says his father came to feel he needed a fresh start and soon set off for Eureka to live with his sister Wilma and her husband Fred Butterworth, with a bus ticket bought by his brother and that cardboard suitcase bought by his other sister.

He soon bought an old fixer upper truck, Dale Warmuth says, and quickly forged many new friendships in Eureka's car community, including out at the Samoa air strip drag races. His first job was within the parts department of Debon Motors, and he went on to work at Peterbilt, Finnegan Nason Auto Parts and Gustafson Chevrolet.

When pilots complained of the drag racing at the air strip, Leon and others solicited the help of then Councilmember Orval Wilson to find a solution, and thus the foundation of the Samoa Drag Strip was laid.

"Somewhere in this mix of work, dad met my mother Elaine," Dale Warmuth says. "Folklore says it was at Maro's Drive-in."

They married in 1956 and Dale was born in 1958, with Elaine giving birth to a daughter, Carrie, three years later.

With Leon's hot rod work having developed a following, he and Elaine soon asked Elaine's uncle George Hartman for $900 so Leon could start his own shop — "Why $900?," Dale Warmuth asks rhetorically. "Because it sounded like so much less than $1,000."

Thus, Leon's Brake and Muffler was born, soon becoming Leon's Muffler Service and later — under his children's management — Leon's Car Care Center, as the business steadily grew and moved from location to location.

Over the years, Leon started racing but left to build race cars for Jim Walker that "were quite successful at Redwood Acres," according to Dale Warmuth.

Over the years, with Elaine's encouragement, Leon committed to spending more time with family and finding new hobbies, specifically gardening, and they bought a country home on the Klamath River near Bluff Creek where "the whole family grew up," as Dale Warmuth puts it.

Around the same time, Leon became a member of the Eureka Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, later becoming president in 1990.

But as the years passed, Leon spent more and more time away from the business, poring it instead into the garden at his and Elaine's forever home in Eureka, where Dale says "they gardened in the most enormous ways."

Dunaway says she will never forget meeting Leon for the first time, saying she became a member of the Facebook page Barns of Humboldt County after she and Mike bought the house next to the Warmuth's in 2019 and one day noticed he'd posted a picture of the barn on their property. The next day, Mike and Addie went over to introduce themselves and were immediately smitten, saying they were taken with Leon's open heart, interest in all things, pride in his family and desire to soak up what life had to offer, something she ascribes to the fact scoliosis taught him not to take things for granted as a child.

"He was told he wasn't going to survive very long and, basically, the family should put him in a home and leave him alone," she says. "Against all odds, he didn't just survive, he thrived."

She says she was taken with the way Leon collected things, from postcards and local yearbooks to hot wheel cars, and the joy things seemed to bring him.

A couple of years ago, she says Leon told her and Mike that he was going to install a gate between their properties so when he passed they could come care for Elaine. Dunaway says she wanted to push back but didn't.

"There were certain things where you teased him or argued with him about, and then there were certain things where you knew you needed to let him have his say," she says. "That was a moment when we needed to let him have his say."

Dunaway says calls have already been made to a company about installing that gate, which Leon never managed as his health failed.

In his last years, as mobility increasingly became a challenge, Dunaway says she was struck by the way Leon was so intent on taking in the world around him, saying he'd spend hours sitting in his yard. When work was being done at the Dunaway home, he'd watch and document it.

"To him, the activity taking place next door, he was just thrilled, sitting in a chair in the garden, watching what was going on," she says.

Leon is survived by Elaine, his wife of more than 65 years, and his children Dale and Carrie, and will be missed by many, including dear friends Mike Cahill, Gary Wahlund, Jewell Hendricks and Jerry Brazil.

"Leon was astounded in the life he looked back on," Dale Warmuth says. "He felt so lucky with life, wife, family, business, friends and the chance to share his good fortune."

In the official city press release announcing Warmuth's death, Mayor Kim Bergel calls him a "great asset to the city," saying, "Eureka is a better place because of Leon and the Warmuth family."

Dunaway agrees, and says it's hard to express how grateful she is for the profound connection she and Mike were able to make with Leon in just a few short years. Asked about her lasting memories of Leon, she recalls a recent time when she was driving in town and saw a car with an I-heart-Leon bumper sticker.

"I saw this bumper sticker and thought everyone should have someone like that, someone they can look up to and admire, someone who can provide some elder guidance, someone who just has a gentle, open heart like that."

She pauses.

"If everyone could be a little more like Leon, the world would be a better place," she says.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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