In the heart of lovely Eufaula stands a statue like no other. About waist-high, under shady trees, it is a testament to a town hero, Leroy Brown. What’s so unique about that, you ask?
Leroy Brown is a fish.
Leroy was a larger-than-life, livin’ large, largemouth bass. This is the story, his legend, a fish tail – I mean tale.
On a sunny Eufaula Lake day in 1973, Tom Mann caught the bass that changed his life. “Dad knew something was different when the line yanked,” said his daughter, Sharon Mann Dixon. “Leroy weighed less than 2 pounds but fought hard because he was a king and knew it.”
Most fish caught in Eufaula – “Big Bass Capital of the World” – are destined either for the trophy case or a rendezvous with tartar sauce. In addition, the boisterous bass was not reeled in by an angling amateur. Tom Mann was an expert, owner of Mann’s Bait Company and Tom Mann’s Fish World, and a fishing lure inventor.
Typically, gamefish and fishermen are adversaries, but not this time. The little fish with the barracuda attitude went home with Mann and was placed in the family’s cement pond. Later, Leroy Brown was transferred to Mann’s Bait’s 18,000-gallon aquarium. Dixon noted, “He instantly owned the tank.”
The aqua-pet was hand-fed minnows. It was trained to jump through a hoop held over the aquarium’s water surface. When Mann walked to another side of the massive aquarium, Leroy followed from the inside looking out.
“Its weakness was strawberry jelly worms – Dad’s invention,” Dixon said. “That’s the bait Leroy was caught on.” If other lures didn’t interest Leroy, he allowed tankmates to eat them.
“He was also a ladies’ man,” said Eufaula Mayor Jack Tibbs, who fondly recalled the fish’s life and times. “Leroy had several girlfriends and shielded his love interests from would-be suitors.”
But the gilled guy’s heart belonged to Big Bertha, a 12-pound female tankmate. “They were inseparable,” said Dixon, who relayed a bittersweet love story. “A critically ill fish typically floats near the water’s surface when it is dying. In her last days, Bertha floated near the top and Leroy continuously attempted to push her back down, deeper in the water.”
The Mann family named their pet after Jim Croce’s popular 1970s song, “Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.” The name fit and word spread. Eufaula was seized by fish fame.
People came from everywhere to behold the bass. He received fan mail from around the world. Leroy made the front page of The Atlanta Constitution. He was featured in Southern Living magazine and in news stories as far away as Africa and Australia.
In August 1980, Tom Mann discovered his prized pet floating. Silence had seized the fish that roared. Leroy Brown died of natural causes.
Tom’s close friend Ray Scott, founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S), was consulted. They agreed that Leroy deserved a funeral. Approximately $4,000 was spent on a customized headstone. A casket was made from a satin-lined tackle box complete with strawberry jelly worms to accommodate Leroy in the hereafter.
At Lakepoint Lodge, about 800 people attended the funeral for a big mouth bass. Pallbearers included Roland Martin and other fishing celebrities. The Eufaula High School Marching Band played “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and Alabama Gov. Fob James declared a Day of Mourning for the fallen fish.
But at nightfall, something fishy happened. Leroy’s casket was not buried the day of the funeral because of intense rain making the gravesite too wet. The casket was stored in a freezer. Thieves in the night stole the body and left a ransom note: 1 million jelly worms for Leroy’s return.
Weeks later the remains were found at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, airport’s lost baggage department. The fish carcass was never returned to Eufaula nor the grave-robbers ever found.
For years, Leroy’s monument lay idle, to be discovered by Tibbs. “I was fishing at Ray Scott’s fishing lodge in Pintlala and saw it on the property,” Tibbs said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s Leroy Brown!’”
Tibbs met with Dixon to ask Ray Scott’s permission to return the stone to Eufaula. Scott agreed.
On Oct. 13, 2016, the marble monument to Leroy Brown was dedicated on East Broad Street, where it remains today. Tom Mann died in 2005. But the legacy lives.
Last April in a re-enactment coinciding with Eufaula Pilgrimage week, 11-year-old Eufaula Elementary School fifth-grader Mackenzie Young dressed as a largemouth bass. Assuming the role of walking Leroy, she told the story to the assembled. “I am Leroy Brown,” she said proudly with fins raised high. “I wasn’t a large fish, but you could tell me apart from the others. I was the most famous fish in America.”
Visitors constantly question Tibbs, asking, is the story true? “We answer, ‘Yes, it is,’” Eufaula’s municipal leader said. “Of course, some of them look at you funny when told we had a funeral for a bass.”
Dixon works at Southern Charm, a quaint boutique across the street from Leroy Brown’s monument. “I see it from the front window,” she said, smiling and patting the head of Leroy’s stone likeness. “Every day it brings back memories.”
On the front of the memorial are Tom Mann’s words:
“Most Bass Are Just Fish. But Leroy Brown Was Something Special.”
Rest in peace, Eufaula’s king of fish.
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.
(Link to story for photo credits: http://alabamaliving.coop/article/big-boss-bass-or-big-fish-tale/