Joey van Leeuwen: The Singing Coyote

Copyright 2017 by Diane Sward Rapaport

Joey van Leeuwen died on November 2 by his own hand in Jerome, AZ. Katie Lee, his partner for 36 years, died peacefully the night before. Joey was 85 years old.J&K Home 2011

Among friends, it was always Katie and Joey, never one without the other. They had increasing disabilities, and for many years, told each other that they could not live without the help of the other. It’s how it is when people age and need to rely on one another.

Joey loved birds, painted portraits of them, carved them, and wrote and illustrated a little gem of a book called The Birds of Jerome. Anyone who walked into Katie and Joey’s home immediately saw a virtual aviary: hawks, eagles and ravens that Joey had carved hanging from the ceiling; doves, ducks, hummingbirds, owls, swallows, and finches perched on window sills and bookcases, a blue heron for the backporch.

Joey bird flying1.jpg

Joey planted an arboretum in his backyard, eighty-six trees, almost as many as there are birds in his book, including chokecherry, hackberry, mulberry, elderberry, squawbush, California buckthorn, walnut, peach, and apricot, eight species of pine and many Gambel oaks. He grew three different types of cherries on one tree. In the evening, he and Katie would sit on the back porch with binoculars and watch the birds feast on a smorgasbord of fruits, berries and nuts.

It gave Katie much pleasure, until some of the trees grew so tall they obscured some of the incredible views of the Verde Valley and red rock canyons beyond. Joey trimmed the trees best he could.

I had the pleasure of hiking with Katie and Joey, not only in the remote Utah canyons, but on a camping trip to Western Australia in 1986. He was a gentle, tall, canny and modest man, as steadfast a friend as I could ever want, with a sweetness that balanced Katie’s more caustic aspects.

Friends and I nicknamed him Hawkeye. He could name a bird at the flick of a color, the shape of a tail, the nest it wove, or from a feather lodged in a prickly pear cactus. He could imitate their songs. Once he told me he watched long-tailed grass finches in Western Australia become drunk on termites. In the spring, the termites secrete some kind of acid that makes the birds so drunk they can hardly fly.

A child’s curiosity and an adult’s skepticism about certain so-called ‘facts’ once led Joey to painting a dozen aluminum cans with a wild bouquet of colors. He filled them with sugar water and sat back to observe which color hummingbirds preferred. “Which ones, Joey,” I asked. “Red. They like red.” He had to find out for himself.

He was born in Holland, emigrated to Australia where he worked on a sheep station in Western Australia for many years, before moving to Jerome, AZ in 1978 to live with Katie. In Australia, Joey was a member of many bird clubs and was sought after for his expertise on aviaries. He fell in love with Katie Lee and moved to Jerome too soon to finish his book of Australian bird lore, “The ABCs of Bird Keeping.”

Joey bird100_0441.JPG

It takes a gentle person to observe their quirky habits and make them companions. Joey’s reward was pure pleasure, a quenching of curiosity and a deepening of knowledge for its own sake. Joey had those traits, as well as the capacity to love without aggression.

Before he died, Joey meticulously labeled which of his carvings were to be gifted to friends. He gifted me one called “Singing Coyote.” I’d like to think he read my tribute to Katie, where I mentioned some of the most magical moments in the canyons, where she played her beat-up guitar (which Joey carried in his backpack) and sang, with the coyotes adding their wild harmonies. I’d like to think Joey and Katie are somewhere in the wild canyons, hand-in-hand singing along with those wild coyote yips.

Joey is survived by two brothers, three children in Australia, Stephen, Elizabeth and Joanne,  five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.


20 thoughts on “Joey van Leeuwen: The Singing Coyote

  1. Joey was unique in much the same way as Katie but they were yin and yang. A perfect match because of their similarities but also their differences. Joey definitely had the life well lived. He was a good story teller and I loved to hear about his childhood in Holland where he was a young boy facing the Nazi occupation. Thanks for your beautiful summary of his and Katie’s lives. He said many times he didn’t know what he would do if Katie went first. It’s sad, but I can imagine Joey saying in his wonderful accent: “Well mate, sometimes you just do what you have to do and get on with it”.


  2. Thank you, Diane. What an inspiration. So sorry for your loss but how wonderful it must have been to have known them both. Thanks so much!


  3. Joey volunteered at the Food Bank and he and my husband drove a truck to Prescott a couple of times a week to pick up donated food from Sams and Walmart. They became good friends and Joey came to my husband, Randy’s, memorial service in 2014. Joey came to the house prior to my husband passing where I met him…wonderful man. I have two of his bird carvings, one is a Cardinal that my husband gave me for Christmas and a hummingbird that Joey gave me…I treasure both. I visited Katy and Joey in their home and, with pride, they took me on a tour of it…it was wonderful. May they journey to Heaven together and I know my husband will love seeing them again.


  4. You really got the balance of temperament in this! Their love song is complete now and For them it seems appropriate. To have live and love creating a balance of existence they were quite fortunate, but to have done it in Jerome a cacoon of reality that harbors personality and individuality made it a true Love story for the ages!


  5. Oh Diane, thank you for your words on both Joey and Katie, too. They were quite a pair. I loved Joey’s twinkle. He was so quiet but never missed a thing. Damn I’ll be missing them.


  6. A great big gaping hole in the heart of Jerome right now… these two leaving this physical plane… but i know those of us who were fortunate enough to know them will always feel their presence in some way or another. The morning Joey left i was out riding, and spotted a hawk i’d never seen, and was sure Joey would know what it was. I had to look it up… it was a dark morph western redtail, which i’ve never seen around here… and so unusual and beautiful. For so many years Joey would give me his empty mulch bags and i would fill them all up with horse manure for his garden, and pull up on the sidewalk in my pickup in front of their house to deliver them. He was the only person i did that for. They already are so missed… such vibrant, vital characters in this town.


    • Few people knew of his many ‘secret’ thoughtfulnesses, his keeping up of so many little town gardens, his work for the food banks, and so on. A very kind, modest human being, who was uncannily smart.


  7. Thanks Diane
    Actually, thanks to everybody, thanks to Tracy and Nancy for taking care of things and thanks to everybody in Jerome.
    Thanks to taking in our father and for making him so welcome, making him an Aussie-American with a Dutch accent!
    Stephen & Regina van Leeuwen
    Elizabeth and Jock Embrey
    Joanne & Roy Downey


  8. Diane,
    Thank you for this beautiful tribute. I am still reeling from the impact of Katie and Joey’s departure. Let me know if there is anything I can do to help with follow up, destiny of books, celebration of lives, etc.


  9. Thank you all,the lovely people who have known my brother Joey for the kind words.I could add a few more,but I don’t know where to begin.Katie,the love of his life also my best friend.Forever in my heart.


    • So nice to hear from you. I’d love to hear more stories. For instance, is it true that Joey at say 9 years old was helping to bomb Nazi trains and trucks. What do you know of that era of his life? I also eard he wasa crack poker player. I know Katie and Joey enjoyed biking in the Ndetherlands. Are there stories to tell about them then? What do you do?


  10. Thank you, Mom, for writing this tribute. Joey was such a gentle man and in so many ways Katie was more the center of attention. You noticed and chronicled here some of his many delightful qualities with the same loving attention he gave to his beloved birds. I’d forgotten you’d gone to Australia or somehow never knew that!


  11. To a beautiful Uncle I didn’t get time to really get to know, I feel that my world is crumbling piece by piece, after losing my Mum 18 moths ago. To my Dad Tom (3 Posts up) I love you more than you know. Xx


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