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Johnson County Highway Bear gets facelift after 50 years

Posted at 9:21 PM, Apr 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-29 23:25:06-04

STILWELL, Kan. — Since the 1960s, he’s sat along the northbound lane of U.S. Highway 69 in Johnson County.

For some families, he has been a figure of good luck. For others, he’s become a landmark indicating that Kansas City is ahead.

Standing eight and a half feet tall, he’s known as the Highway Bear — who, with one paw raised, waves to those who are passing by.

“I share anything bear-related. If it has to do with Mr. Bear, it gets shared,” said Matt Avis, who considers himself “the voice of the bear.”

Avis first discovered the statue, which sits in his backyard, when he bought his home. Whenever he would mow his backyard, cars would constantly honk.

“Every car that would come by, you would just hear honk honk honk,” said Avis. “I had no clue that it meant something to them.”

Avis cleared the brush around the bear. Then, he started to dress the statue up for holidays and big sports games. Eventually, Avis decided to create a page for the Highway Bear on Facebook. Within hours, it exploded with friend requests, comments and likes.

“I just wanted him repaired,” he said.

Jeff Wilson with Insco Industries’ Coating and Painting Division saw the Facebook page and immediately reached out to Avis.

Like many south Kansans, Wilson grew up “waving the bear.” He told 41 Action News he wanted to help restore the bear so his grandchildren could continue the tradition of waving to the bear.

Wilson also recruited Danny McCullough of Mid-States Restoration.

“The bear has been here my entire life. My kids wave at it now and I used to wave at it as a kid. My workers wave at it. It’s a big thing to everybody,” he told 41 Action News as he painted the bear white.

Together the two companies power-washed, resurfaced and repainted the bear. They worked on it for about a week— free of charge.

“We’re not making no money on it," McCullough said. “It’s for the community and just to see how many people are about this bear, it just makes me feel good."

Now, with its makeover, the Highway Bear is hard to miss.

“I put all my heart into it to get him back up. And now I think he’ll go forever,” Avis said. “Generation after generation. It will keep going and going.”

Note: The Highway Bear is located on northbound U.S. Highway 69, south of the 179th Street exit. It was initially build in the 1960s by Weldon Epperson for the Brown Realty Company. The bear was initially brown and then painted white to stand out.