Leroy Van Dyke’s life was forever changed in a tent in Korea while he was serving as a special agent in the United States Army Counter-Intelligence Corps.
In that tent, Van Dyke penned the song that would put him on the country music map – “Auctioneer.”
“While I was riding down those dusty roads, words kept coming to me,” Van Dyke said. “I didn’t think much of it and ignored them. By about the fourth time those words started coming to me, I had a feeling that someone was trying to tell me something. I sat down and started writing. It really didn’t take long to put the lyrics together.”
The song focuses on a boy from Arkansas who wanted to become an auctioneer. As the boy grows, he develops his craft and becomes a famous auctioneer, known across the nation. The story is actually based on a real-life individual. Van Dyke’s cousin, Ray Sims, spent nearly 50 years as an auctioneer and did an estimated 7,000 sales. Sims joined the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame in 1990.
“Everything about ‘Auctioneer’ is true – except for the first line,” Van Dyke said. “Nothing rhymes with Missouri, so I had to move one state over.”
It was Sims who got Van Dyke interested in the art of auctioneering. When Van Dyke was 9 years old, he attended an auction conducted by Sims. It was right then that Van Dyke knew he wanted to learn the craft.
“It was definitely something I knew I wanted to do,” Van Dyke said.
Selling is one of the four goals Van Dyke set for himself to accomplish throughout his lifetime, along with singing, writing and raising livestock. He’s marked each off of his list.
“A lot of things have really fallen into place,” Van Dyke said.
Van Dyke was born on his family’s farm in rural Pettis County in 1929. The farm operation spanned 3,000 acres and included cattle, sheep and hogs, as well as grain crops. Van Dyke attended Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia and excelled as a student. His hard-working nature was honed on the family farm.
“The farm is where I really learned how to work,” Van Dyke said. “We did a little bit of everything, so I learned how to dehorn cattle, shear sheep, bale hay, work with mules, even move furniture, and that just scratches the surface. My dad, in addition to farming, ran a small, diversified truck line.”
Van Dyke didn’t have plans to attend college; instead, he stayed home and worked on the farm for a year. A visit to his older brother, who was attending the University of Missouri, changed his outlook.
“He was an engineering student at the time,” Van Dyke said. “When I visited him in Columbia, I knew I was missing something. I enrolled at MU shortly thereafter.”
Van Dyke earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture, focusing on animal husbandry and journalism, with a minor in speech. Van Dyke was a member of the junior and senior livestock judging teams during his time at Mizzou as well.
He graduated in 1952 and immediately began basic military training, as the Korean War was in full swing. Van Dyke attended the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps special agent school after basic training, when he learned that CIC was looking for Special Agent prospects.
“I put my name on the list, was interviewed and accepted after extensive background checks,” Van Dyke said. “I just kind of rolled with the punches. We had a 30-day immersion in the Japanese language. I spent 10 days in Japan and then went to Seoul.”
Van Dyke had ample opportunity to display his singing chops during the Korean War, playing his guitar when his fellow soldiers wanted to hear a tune. Van Dyke had always enjoyed singing throughout his youth. His father would tune in to Gene Autry transcriptions every morning at 6 a.m.
“I remember a conversation my dad and I had when I was around 13 years old,” Van Dyke said. “He wanted to know what I wanted to do when I got older. I told him that I would probably follow in his footsteps and farm. He pushed the issue and wanted to know what I really wanted to do. I told him I wanted to sing.”
Along with a passion for singing, Van Dyke still enjoyed the art of auctioneering. He attended an auctioneering school in Indiana between his junior and senior years at MU.
“We covered everything in those classes,” Van Dyke said. “A lot of people can talk fast, but it’s necessary to include a rhythm with it. We learned to mix numbers and filler words. There were a lot of breathing exercises as well. It was intense and interesting.”
Van Dyke combined his singing skills with his auctioneering skills to create “Auctioneer.” He had an opportunity to perform the song during his time in Korea – even opening a show for Marilyn Monroe.
“I was contacted about an upcoming United Service Organizations show,” Van Dyke said. “They wanted to know if I would do a 15-minute opening for the main show. It sounded fun, so I said yes, then learned I would be opening for Marilyn Monroe, on stage in front of entertainment-hungry front-line G.I.s.”
“We had a good time. Marilyn was very nice to me, and I found out later that I was the only country music singer ever to open for her.”
Van Dyke put his journalism experiences at Mizzou to work once he returned from Korea. He became a field representative in the purebred livestock advertising department of the Chicago Drovers Journal. It was during that time when Van Dyke saw an advertisement for a talent show in Chicago.
“I hopped on a train and auditioned,” Van Dyke said. “I sang ‘Auctioneer,’ and it went really well. They asked me to be a contestant in their upcoming show. I didn’t win the competition, I think I finished third, but in two weeks I had a record out and in three months I had sold a million records.”
Van Dyke’s music career had officially taken off. In all, he has recorded hundreds of songs, including “Walk On By,” which topped the charts for 19 straight weeks. The song was on the charts for 42 weeks. It was named the biggest all-time country hit in the 100th anniversary issue of Billboard magazine (November 1, 1994), based on sales, radio airplay and longevity on the country music charts.
“You never really expect to produce a song that takes off like that,” Van Dyke said.
Van Dyke joined the Grand Ole Opry as a member in 1962, reaching another one of his childhood goals. He moved to Nashville, Tennessee, during that time and continued to make music, performing shows and concerts across the United States, and at locations on four continents around the world.
Van Dyke was a founding co-host of the syndicated radio show “Country Crossroads” and hosted the “The Leroy Van Dyke Show,” which was his own syndicated television series. Van Dyke was able to display his acting chops in the 1967 movie “What Am I Bid?” where he played the main character. The movie was a reflection of some of Van Dyke’s life experiences but was not a biography.
“We had complete control of the movie, from the casting to the script,” Van Dyke said. “It was a lot of fun to do and was really a thank you to many of the individuals who had helped me along the way. We cast some of those individuals, including Al Hirt, Faron Young, Ray Sims and Tex Ritter.”
Van Dyke still spends plenty of time on the road, performing in a variety of venues, including fairs, livestock events, casinos and performing arts centers across North America. He traveled up to 315 days some years, and still works scores of dates yearly entertaining his fans. Van Dyke has turned his travels into a family affair as well. His wife, Gladys, serves as his booking agent and manages and sets up his performance stops. His son, Ben, plays lead guitar. Ben is also a Mizzou graduate, earning a music degree, as well as a minor in agricultural systems management.
“The smartest thing I ever did was marry Gladys,” Van Dyke said. “We work perfectly together. It’s great being able to play with my son as well. It’s very fulfilling making music together.”
Van Dyke is a member of the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame, and he has continued to keep his auctioneering skills sharp as well. He has served as the auctioneer for CAFNR Ag Unlimited for the past several years.
“That event truly is a big family reunion,” Van Dyke said. “It’s a great event, which raises money for a great cause. I’m glad that I get to be a part of it.”
From Pettis County to Mizzou, from Korea to the Grand Ole Opry, Van Dyke has accomplished a lot – and is still sharing his music with individuals across the nation and around the world.
“I’m still having fun,” Van Dyke said. “I’ve always felt like someone has been behind the scenes, pulling the strings to help me along. I’m living my dream.”