Warren “Jug” Kiso, 86, didn’t quite know how to react Saturday afternoon as he watched the streets of his small town fill up for his childhood friend’s birthday party.
“It surprised the heck out of me that all these people came out,” he said.
Of course, his childhood friend happens to be an American icon.
It was the first-ever Steve McQueen Days, a celebration of what would have been the actor’s 77th birthday in Slater, the small Missouri town where McQueen lived until he was 12. A new sign dubbing Slater “the boyhood home of
Steve McQueen” was unveiled; there was a classic car show and McQueen memorabilia was everywhere — including two of his own motorcycles that were shipped from a museum in Oklahoma.
And while barbecue pork served on paper plates replaced the usual Hollywood red carpet fare, it was a party that the “King of Cool” would have attended.
“Steve would have absolutely loved this,” said Pat Johnson, McQueen’s martial arts instructor and longtime friend. He said McQueen had a passion for restoring antiques and loved all things old, so the car show and Slater’s slow pace were fitting.
“(Steve) used to say to me, ‘You know, I was born 50 years too late,’” he said.
Johnson, like many others that attended Saturday’s party, remembered McQueen as more than just the guy in the leather jacket. “My kids called him Uncle Steve,” Johnson said.
“He was just another boy,” said Kiso, who remembers running around Slater with McQueen in the early 1940s.
Kiso pointed out a street corner where a boxing ring used to be. It was the last place he saw his friend.
“He was coming from the movies and he hollered out ‘Hey Jug!’ and we walked a few minutes and he told me he got a job with the carnival,” Kiso recalled. There was a boxing match going on and instead of waiting in line, Kiso said, McQueen went around the line and snuck in. “And that was the last time I saw Steve.”
“I enjoyed being around him,” Kiso said. “I never once heard him or any of his family say anything bad.”
Visiting Slater gave Johnson a new understanding of his old friend. “In many ways it’s spiritual for me and I feel a connection,” he said. “I understand now why he had some of the loves he had. It’s been an awakening.”
McQueen’s widow, Barbara McQueen, was there to sign copies of her new book “Steve McQueen: The Last Mile,” but she had every intention of taking part in the party, just as her former husband would have done.
“I’m having a blast,” she said before running off to talk to McQueen fans. Barbara McQueen said she and her late husband had tried to come back to Slater, but the illness that led to his early death in 1980 prevented him from ever making it home. “A lot of Steve’s heart and soul came from Slater,” she said.
It’s unclear whether Steve McQueen Days will become an annual event, but those who attended Saturday’s party were hopeful that it would be. Eva Sue Thomas, who grew up in Slater, said she would definitely come back.
“I’m a Steve McQueen fan and I’m a Slater fan,” she said.