Lee Owen loved her grandchildren, rescued bulldogs and the Dancing Grannies. She was killed at the Waukesha Christmas Parade.

Sophie Carson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Lee Owen poses for a photo in her costume for the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies. Owen was a member of the dance group for 12 years, her son said.

This story was republished on Jan. 20, 2022 to make it free for all 

As information becomes available, the Journal Sentinel is working to memorialize each of the people who lost their lives in the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy.

Leanna Owen was a proud grandmother who cared deeply for her dance troupe friends, the bulldogs she rescued and the tenants she oversaw as building manager.

Known as Lee to all, Owen, 71, was killed Sunday when a driver plowed his SUV through the Waukesha Christmas Parade, striking dozens of marchers. Six have died from their injuries, and more than 60 were injured.

With her family waiting farther down the parade route, Owen was struck as she performed with the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, a local dance group for grandmothers that marches in about two dozen Milwaukee-area parades each year. Two other dancers and the spouse of another dancer were killed as well.

Losing outgoing, energetic Owen has devastated her close-knit family.

"One thing we’re trying to take away from it," her son Chris Owen said, "is that at least she was doing something she loved."

Born in Moline, Ill., in 1950, Owen moved to Stoughton, Wis., and met the man she would marry at Stoughton High School.

In 1979, Owen and her husband, Mike, bought a house on Milwaukee's south side. There, they raised two sons, Chris and Matt. Although they divorced, the couple remained close friends.

Owen worked as an accountant for a time and in recent years managed an apartment complex in Cudahy — a job she loved, Chris said.

"She was just a very social, people person," Chris said. "Even though that job was hard sometimes because she was dealing with a lot of people's issues all at once, she shined at that job."

Lee Owen and Mike Owen visited their son Chris in 2016 when he lived in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Lee and Mike divorced years ago but remained close throughout their lives.

Dave Schmidt, who owns the two 32-unit buildings on South Packard Avenue, said she had a relationship with every tenant.

“She was the glue that kept that apartment complex running for us,” Schmidt said. “She will be sorely missed.”

Though she was small in stature, Owen earned a reputation among the tenants as caring, yet no-nonsense. Always seen with her rescued bulldog Oscar by her side, she earned an apt nickname: "the bulldog."

"She was friendly and warm and always laughing, but she could also be very direct, and didn't take crap from anybody. I think people respected and loved that about her," Chris Owen said.

More:What we know about Waukesha Christmas Parade victims so far.

More: Donations pouring in from all over the world.

In recent years Owen found a passion in adopting neglected bulldogs who needed extensive care. Although her latest adoptee Oscar is "a little crazy," Owen adored him, her son said.

"He was a pretty popular fixture of the apartment building," Chris said.

Energetic and super-active, Owen survived a bout with COVID-19 last year and would often start her day around 4 a.m.

She was proud of her three grandchildren, Taylor, Brett and Hayley, and often attended their sports games and school functions.

This undated image from video provided by CBS 58 Milwaukee shows the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies. Leanna "Lee" Owen, 71, front center, to the left, was killed by a driver in the Waukesha Christmas Parade on Sunday, Nov. 21, 2021. The Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, a marching, dancing holiday fixture in Wisconsin for nearly 40 years. Two other members and the husband of another were killed.

Owen also found great joy in the Dancing Grannies, a group she grew close to over her 12 years of involvement.

She loved the exercise it offered and especially enjoyed socializing with the Grannies and their families after practices and shows.

"These women were a big part of her life," Chris said.

When a reporter from WDJT-TV (Channel 58) profiled the group in August, Owen’s interview was featured heavily.

“Can you keep up with the group?” reporter Winnie Dortch asked Owen, who was the smallest, shortest dancing granny of the crew.

“Oh, you bet I can,” Owen responded, laughing. “I’m encouraging them. ‘Come on, come on!’"

As the family tries to comprehend the shock of losing their beloved mother and grandmother, they are looking for any small comfort to take from the horrific experience.

Chris' daughter, Hayley, was performing in the parade as well with her own dance group, but she was farther ahead in the lineup than the Dancing Grannies. He is thankful that she wasn't hit, and his other children didn't witness the SUV strike anyone.

Lee Owen and her granddaughter Hayley Owen are seen in a photo from a parade a few years ago. Both performed with their own dance groups.

Chris, who lives in the country of Turkey but was in town for the parade and for Thanksgiving, met up with his ex-wife and the children to watch the parade.

After Hayley's group had passed, he saw the SUV "scream" down the street and turn the corner. Then he heard gunshots.

But from his family's spot along the parade route, they had no idea the car had just plowed through dozens of people.

"The first thing I thought was: How did that stupid car not realize it's in a parade?"

The spectators stood around for a few minutes, unsure what was happening. Then police arrived and said the parade was over. Chris figured, from their reaction, that maybe the SUV hit someone.

"We didn't even fathom what had actually happened," he said.

Chris' ex-wife found Hayley quickly, and they packed up the car and got the kids home safely. But Chris couldn't reach his mother, texting her and calling her with no response.

As the hours passed, the realization she was either seriously injured or dead settled in. Chris' brother Matt started calling hospitals, then driving to each one in Waukesha, looking for his mother.

The family heard rumors that the Dancing Grannies were among the most seriously injured.

Eventually, Matt ran into the family of Virginia "Ginny" Sorenson, the Grannies' choreographer who also was killed. Owen was likely dead too, Sorenson's family said. Then, all they could do was wait for official confirmation.

Lee Owen poses in an undated photo with her grandchildren, from left, Brett, Taylor and Hayley Owen. Owen, who was killed in the Waukesha Christmas Parade, leaves behind two sons and three grandchildren.

Now, as Thanksgiving arrives, the family is left without its gregarious, loving matriarch.

Everyone is in a "state of disbelief," Chris said.

From the Dancing Grannies to the apartment complex, every group she was a part of will feel "the tremendous loss" of Owen.

"Our family, her grandkids, me and my brother, all of us are going to feel it," he said.

Lee Owen is survived by her two sons, Chris (Christi) and Matt Owen, her three grandchildren, Taylor, Brett and Hayley Owen, her ex-husband and close friend Mike Owen, her dog Oscar, and her three cats.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or scarson@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.