Outside, George Keplar displayed a rough and gruff — sometimes salty — exterior.

Inside beat a kind heart, especially when farm kids and the needy were concerned.

Outside, George Keplar displayed a rough and gruff — sometimes salty — exterior.

Inside beat a kind heart, especially when farm kids and the needy were concerned.

Keplar, of the Spurgeon area, died Wednesday. He was 80.

Dave Arwood has been acquainted with Keplar for many years. Arwood remembered Keplar’s commitment to Seneca FFA students, to the needy, and to generations of children.

“You could always count on him,” Arwood said. “He was always there and if the kids needed anything, he would see that they got it.”

Keplar began helping kids about 44 years ago with the first Newton County Fair. He and his late wife, Carol, went to see Roy Jean Carter, the county extension agent, and volunteered to help in any way possible. At that time, the fairgrounds were located at the site of the present Talbot Wire, across Harmony Street from the office of the Neosho Daily News.

After going to that first county fair, the couple organized the Oak Grove 4-H Club, later starting the Cedar Creek 4-H group. The two later merged.

“I can remember going to a county fair since I was a little kid and there has always been a member of the Keplar family there,” Arwood said.

Arwood became acquainted with Keplar when he started a trucking business and Keplar had an established truck repair business. Readers may recall Keplar’s truck with the slogans “Here comes George” and “If I can’t fix it, it ain’t broke.”

Many men around Seneca knew Keplar as “Uncle George,” for the way he showed younger generations how to repair machinery or even start their own business. One of those was Wayne Macy who became a semi mechanic because of Keplar’s influence.

“He wanted to retire and took me under his wing about three years ago,” Macy said. “He taught me a lot about how to work on semis. He took time out of his schedule to show me what I needed to do. He was a very well-loved man and is going to be missed.”

Macy said he last heard from Keplar about two hours before the older man’s death, when he sent a repair job his way.

“You couldn’t find just anyone to take the time to teach you and the patience to do it,” he said. “He will be missed.”

Another self-employed person Keplar influenced was Larry Kennedy, who is also a traveling diesel mechanic. Kennedy recalled one lesson Keplar taught him: not to worry all that much about competitors.

“When I first started many, many years ago, he told me about a guy who said he was gonna put us both out of business,” Kennedy said. “I worried about that all the time for a three-week period. But he was making a joke. I guess the moral of the story is never let it get to you: one man can’t do it all.”

Arwood also remembered Keplar’s sense of humor.

“We had a license plate made up that said ‘Keplar’s Funny Farm,’ and ‘I Don’t Rent Pigs,’ and put it on his truck,” Arwood recalled. “I thought he’d be mad about it, but he kept it on there. When he sold the truck, he took it off and kept it.”

For years, Keplar had “Keplar’s Funny Farm,” a collection of exotic animals not usually seen in Southwest Missouri, including a monkey named Charlie. Generations of schoolchildren and adults visited the Keplar farm to see the animals, visit with the Keplars, and even drink a glass of tea on their back porch.

But Arwood best remembers Keplar’s work with Seneca FFA kids and his lending a helping hand to the needy.
“George was part of our FFA’s disaster response team,” Arwood said. “He helped teach the open shop, and diesel mechanics classes and always helped out the agriculture mechanics judging team. Besides time, he also helped financially.

“And when Doyle Shields, Seneca’s chief of police, would call us about a needy family, George was always a contributor and it was $100 a man.”

Arwood remembers being on the receiving end of Keplar’s assistance.

“In the tornado of 2008, Dawn and I lost everything,” he said. “First on the scene was George Keplar with a pickup load of people. He came bouncing through the ditch and I asked him ‘How did you get past the guys guarding the road? [During the tornado, law enforcement officers and others blocked area roads to prevent sightseeing and looting]. George said ‘Why that [expletive deleted], he’s not my boss.’ He said, ‘What’s he gonna do with me?’ ”

Shortly after that twister, on May 30, 2008, Keplar married Veva Camerer. The two continued helping others.

“Veva makes the best cinnamon rolls you’ve ever eaten,” Arwood said. “At fundraisers, there’s always a battle between a few of us to see who can purchase a pan of her cinnamon rolls.”

The rolls bring top dollar. For instance, a pan of the dessert brought $330 at last fall’s hay auction to benefit the Seneca Food Pantry. At an FFA fundraiser, a pan of the buns brought $300, while during a fundraiser for Hart Full Gospel Church, a pan of Veva’s cinnamon rolls brought $400, Arwood recalled.

“What we probably don’t know is that George was one who put money in the can, and didn’t say nothing,” Arwood said.

“You could always count on George,” said Johnnie Reffett. “Usually when George showed up, [his twin daughters] Martha and Mary were there, too. He’s one of those persons who will be greatly missed. We don’t realize what we had with us until it’s gone. God took one of the best ones we had here.”

Arwood recalled a time when the tables were turned, and a helping hand was extended to the Keplars: during the loss of George’s son, Edward, to illness.

“We made it a point to be there about every day, whether it was going to lunch or whatever,” Arwood said. “If you ever wanted to make him mad, run up and pay for lunch ahead of him!”

Kennedy said his acquaintance with Keplar grew during that time.

“When his son got ill, George overworked himself,” Kennedy said. “I offered to help him. This business was never really a goal of mine, but it turned out to be a reality.”

Meanwhile, Reffett recalled when George’s own barn was damaged by a tornado. Students with Seneca’s FFA program came to clean up debris and build another barn.

“He wanted to get in there and help,” Reffett said. “We said, no, it was his turn. He didn’t like accepting that, didn’t want to sit back and watch.

“On the outside, he was one of the toughest people you’d meet. On the inside, he had one of the kindest hearts.”

Asked what he would remember most about the man he and others called “Uncle George,” Arwood simply answered, “His wisdom.”

“I don’t know if legend is the right word, but it comes close,” he said.

Long-time friend Stephen Wheelen summed up Keplar’s life by paraphrasing a line from the old Jimmy?Dean song “Big John.”

“At the bottom of this grave lies a good man,” he said. “He didn’t go around behind your back. If something was bothering him, he’d go to you and tell you. Animals and kids were important to him, and kids came first.”