Sing a Song of Courage

updated 07/02/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1984 01:00AM

Leslie Lemke was about to play the piano before a full house at Milwaukee's Mount Carmel Lutheran Church, and he had a case of preconcert jitters. His 84-year-old foster mom, May, exuberantly steered guests over to meet her "little miracle boy," pointing to the six-footer sitting stoically in a beige wood pew. Suddenly he reached out in a frantic search to locate his foster father. "Daddy's right here," said Joe Lemke, 80, taking his son's hand. "I know Daddy's right here," repeated Leslie, who is blind, severely retarded and crippled by cerebral palsy. He is 32 years old.

As the audience soon learned, Leslie is also astonishingly gifted. Though his mind functions at about the level of a 3-year-old and though he has never seen a sheet of music, his foster mother long ago suspected that Leslie might be a musical prodigy. Hadn't she discovered him one day strumming rhythmically on the steel springs of his bed?

Joe and May scraped together $250 for a used piano, and to their amazement late one night, when Leslie was 16, he crawled over to the piano and started playing a Tchaikovsky concerto. He had heard Liberace play the music on television. Leslie had never played anything before, but it soon became evident that, after hearing any piece of music just once, he could unerringly reproduce it on the keyboard. Later he learned to sing as he played.

If there were skeptics in that Milwaukee audience two weeks ago, their doubts were dispelled when Leslie launched into a remarkably polished version of Rhapsody in Blue and a Louis Armstrong-like vocal rendition of Hello, Dolly! In a clear, resonant baritone, he belted out I Believe, his favorite song, and when he played Somewhere My Love, his foster parents danced together at the front of the church. Then, while many of his listeners fought back tears, Leslie tilted his head back and, with emotion, sang Amazing Grace and He Touched Me.

In medical terms Leslie exemplifies the phenomenon known as the savant syndrome, an exceedingly rare condition in which a person with severe mental handicaps demonstrates a singular, spectacular talent. Scientists can only speculate on how the Leslie Lemkes do what they do (see box, p. 30). But to May and Joe Lemke, Leslie's extraordinary musical ability is quite simply "a gift of God."

The Lemkes have had Leslie for all but the first few months of his life. He was abandoned at the Milwaukee county hospital, a blind baby nobody wanted. A doctor remembered that May Lemke had worked as a nurse-governess in town, and so the hospital called to ask May if she would take the infant. No one who knows her believes that she hesitated even for an instant. When it comes to tomato plants, certain furry animals and, of course, children, there could hardly be a more nurturing woman than May Lemke.

"I am a Britisher," May cheerfully tells everyone in the accent of her native Yorkshire. She is a tiny woman, barely 4'6" and 90 pounds. Born into a family of 10 children, she may have inherited her deep sense of caring from her mother, a midwife, although May's own early life was full of horrors. Her father, a shipyard laborer, and her brothers, cousins and an uncle were killed in World War I, many of them victims of poison gas. May's own jaw was broken, her teeth knocked out and her neck and face scarred in an explosion at a munitions factory, where she worked as a teenager. She recovered after a long convalescence, but she never grew taller.

Her mother engineered May's first marriage. American soldiers were billeted near the family's village during the war, and afterward May's mom wrote to one of them, James Pollard, to ask if he would marry May. "Yes," came the reply, so May was shipped off to northern Wisconsin to become the wife of a man she hardly remembered meeting in England. She bore him three sons and two daughters. To this day her children remember how May loved the farm animals, how she stitched up the injured ones with thread and a darning needle.

Life in rural Wisconsin was hard. The Pollards' farmhouse was destroyed in a forest fire (May and the kids survived by huddling in a well). Their next house was smashed by a tornado. May's husband never fully recovered from his wartime shell shock and was in and out of hospitals until he died. To keep her family going, May worked as a nurse-governess in Milwaukee. It was there that she met Joe Lemke, a construction worker. They married in 1946 and set up housekeeping in a cottage they bought on the shore of Pewaukee Lake.

Joe and May lived frugally; they had neither a car nor a phone. On a summer afternoon in 1952 a neighbor came to the cottage to tell May that the hospital in Milwaukee was trying to reach her. It was about Leslie. Doctors had had to remove both of the baby's diseased eyes surgically; the child was not expected to live long. No one said it in so many words, but the idea was for May to take care of Leslie until he died.

No one, however, had counted on May Lemke's bottomless gumption. "I prayed for a miracle," she recalls now. "I said, 'Come on, dear God, do that for a poor boy who has lost his eyes and his body is crippled.' I said to God, 'You did miracles in the olden days, now do one for me. I ain't going to give up until I get it.' "

"My mother is kind of unorthodox, but she always did what she thought was right," says May's daughter Pat Smith. "If one thing didn't work, she'd try something else."

When Leslie first came to May, he hardly moved, he didn't eat. May worked to teach him to suck a bottle; she massaged him daily with oil. "I would talk to him, sing to him, cuddle him and say, 'Oh, what a nice baby you are, you can do this, you can do that,' " and, adds May, "before I knew it he was doing it."

She carried him in her arms wherever she went until, at age 7 and weighing 50 pounds, Leslie was too big to hold. Then May devised a leather harness to strap Leslie to her back—"trailing," she called it. Her hope was that the rhythm of her walking would encourage him to take a step. Two years later May decided Joe could take Leslie into the lake to teach him to swim, and one day the boy's arms moved, his legs moved, he was splashing. Afterward May and Joe stood Leslie up against a wire fence. When he held on standing for a minute before collapsing in a heap, the Lemkes rejoiced.

May's next project was to introduce Leslie to music through the Lemkes' second-hand piano. First she played the simple tunes she remembered from her childhood, then she took Leslie's hands to show him how each key created a different note. Leslie obviously liked the songs, listening with grave concentration. Then at 3 a.m. that night 16 years ago, May remembers, the miracle happened. She heard music and thought the TV had been left on, but it was Leslie, his hands moving with speed over the piano keys. He even sounded like Liberace.

All that happened at a time when Leslie had yet to hold a cup in his hands. Nor had he talked. Hour after hour May put her mouth against his cheek, trying to show him how words are formed. At 19, he started to sing (his first song: My Way). Then, just before he turned 26, he began haltingly to use words in conversation.

Today Leslie will tell you his favorite TV programs are Family Feud, the news and People's Court. His preferred menu lists liver and onions, French fries, milk and a strawberry ice cream sundae. He has learned to dress and bathe himself with minimal assistance and to brush his teeth. He can move around the cottage by holding on to pieces of furniture and takes a daily walk in the backyard along the wire fence. Asked how he feels when he sits down at the piano, he answers, "I feel happy."

"You run across a Lemke family only once in a lifetime," observes Paul Baumgartner, a social worker for Waukesha County, who doubts that Leslie would have survived in an institution. "Words can't describe the care given Leslie down through the years. May is the spark plug, and Joe is the neat old guy who was there working with Leslie right along."

Through all of Leslie's growing up years, the family's lawyer, James Ward, says, "the Lemkes never got any financial aid in raising their foster child. They did it all on their modest resources." At one point Baumgartner put Leslie into a Social Security program that entitles him to a monthly check because he is blind. In 1981 the Lemkes were given legal guardianship of Leslie. (The name of his natural mother is on his birth certificate, but no one knows her whereabouts.)

Leslie's concerts began as impromptu affairs for friends and neighbors. Then May took Leslie to play at hospitals, nursing homes and churches. His first full-fledged public concert was in 1974 at the Waukesha County fair, and he has since toured as far afield as Virginia and California. In the beginning May refused to sell tickets to Leslie's concerts; she did not want anyone to be denied a chance to hear Leslie because they could not afford to pay. Only recently has she been persuaded to take up a collection at each concert. The money goes into a trust fund for Leslie.

May rarely misses an opportunity to press her message on parents. "You have to love your children," she urges. "Don't give them away because they were in an accident or they are going blind. It is up to you with your love to take care of them, and you'd be surprised how well they do." As for her foster son, May has even bigger dreams. "Someday," she proudly predicts, "Leslie will be a composer."

After a lifetime of selfless devotion to others, the years have begun to weigh on May Lemke. She suffers from the progressive effects of a brain disorder; her memory often fails her and her behavior is occasionally unpredictable. May accepts it all with good humor. "I am a little comical dwarf," she says, poking fun at herself with a smile. "I've made everyone laugh all my life." Adds her admiring husband: "May is 90 pounds of dynamite. Don't ever light it up."

Comes the day when May is no longer able to care for Leslie, the legal guardianship will pass on to May's older daughter, Mary Larsen, who is a nurse living in Arpin, Wis. That the transition should be made with sensitivity is a concern of all involved. "No one wants to give May the feeling that others are waiting to take over. That would devastate her," explains Wisconsin author and Leslie's biographer, Shirlee Monty. "But we do know that Leslie will never go to an institution. He will continue to be loved and cared for the rest of his life."

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