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By Darold Treffert, MD
“Leslie Lemke is a memorable man.” That was Morley Safer’s description of Leslie after he watched him play the piano as part of a 60 Minutes program in 1983 on savant syndrome. Dustin Hoffman watched the program and was “moved to tears” by Leslie. When the movie script Rainman came to Hollywood, Dustin Hoffman reported, “I thought, I love him. I want to play a savant.” And he did. Savant became a household word.
The story of Leslie Lemke begins in Milwaukee in 1952. His mother gave him up for adoption at birth. As a complication of his premature birth, Leslie developed retinal problems, then glaucoma, and his eyes had to be surgically removed in the first months of life. There was also brain damage, and Leslie was extremely ill. The county asked May Lemke, a nurse-governess who they knew and trusted, if she would take Leslie into her receiving home, ill as he was and carrying such a dire prognosis. That didn’t deter May. At age 52, and having raised five children of her own, May Lemke said she would. And she did.
In a modest cottage on Lake Pewaukee where she lived with her husband, Joe, May loved and tended to Leslie like a frail little flower. She taught him how to swallow so he could eat and how to make sounds so he could communicate. When he was able, May literally strapped his fragile body to hers to teach him how, a step at a time, to walk. She put his hands over hers as she played simple tunes on a piano she got for him. And she sang to him.
Leslie was intrigued with music and rhythm as a child. Once he was found under the bed strumming the springs in a wondrous tune. He also had a remarkable memory and would often repeat verbatim, intonations and all, a whole day’s conversation he had overheard from whomever he might be visiting. Leslie played and sang often, but mostly the simple tunes May sang or popular songs from the radio. May wasn’t into classical music.
But one evening when Leslie was about age 14, Joe and May watched, and Leslie listened, to a television Sunday Night Movie. In the early morning hours May heard music. She thought Joe had left the television on. She went to turn it off and there was Leslie, playing flawlessly from beginning to end, having heard it but once, tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which was the theme song for that movie. God’s miracle, May said, came into full bloom that night.
As a way of sharing God’s gift of Leslie’s music, May began having Leslie play some concerts at the county fair, in churches, and at schools. In June 1980 Leslie gave a concert in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Amazed by what they had seen — a young blind man, mentally handicapped, with cerebral palsy, and never having had a music lesson in his life playing what seemed like a limitless repertoire and repeating flawlessly whatever was played to him after a single hearing — a local television station brought tapes to me, as the local mental health authority, to see if there was some explanation for this astonishing ability. I explained that this was truly extraordinary, very rare circumstance called the savant syndrome — islands of genius in an otherwise severely mentally handicapped person. This was a condition I was familiar with and had become interested in when running a Children’s Unit in a hospital in Wisconsin.
There happened to be a reporter in that meeting, and the wire service picked up the story of this remarkable young man and his equally remarkable mother. Walter Cronkite used that story for his CBS Evening News program that December. He introduced the segment with, “This is a season that celebrates a miracle, and this story belongs to the season. It’s the story of a young man, a piano, and a miracle.” Other programs, including Donahue, That’s Incredible, and Oprah hosted May and Leslie. The 60 Minutes program aired in October of 1983. Morley Safer considers it one of his favorite 10 stories, and Leslie was part of the 25th Anniversary edition of that show in 1993.
Leslie has given concerts throughout the United States. In 1984 he gave a command performance by invitation for the Crown Prince and Princess in Norway and also has been on tour in Japan. Today he continues to give concerts but, just as often, plays for free at a school, a nursing home, a prison, or a church.
In the 1980s, May’s health began to fail with Alzheimer’s disease. May had vowed that Leslie would never be institutionalized, and he never was. May’s youngest daughter, Mary, took both May and Leslie into her home in 1984 as May’s Alzheimer’s progressed. For a time May lived with her other daughter, Pat. But after Daddy Joe’s death in 1987, May returned to Mary’s home to be near Leslie. Mary vowed that her mother would never be in a nursing home, and she wasn’t. As May’s memory faded, it was only Leslie and his music that could bring those memories to life. “That’s my boy,” May would say as they sang together. Then when the music stopped, May would fade to silence once again. Just as she had brought Leslie to life, Leslie could bring her to life — a touching payback of sorts. May died at Mary’s home on November 6, 1993.
Leslie now lives with May’s daughter. Mary Parker, in Arpin, Wis. There was concern that Leslie might stop his music with May’s death, as had happened with some savants in the past. But it was not so with Leslie; he continues to play and perform. Music is Leslie’s language, and it has been a conduit toward normalization for him. With his music he is more animated, smiles more, talks more, and one can even see a sense of humor emerging. Now he not only repeats a song accurately after hearing it only once, he improvises and, yes, even composes new songs with his own words and effects. His repertoire seems bottomless, his recall seams boundless. Professional musicians marvel at his innate knowledge of the rules of music. Leslie has never had a music lesson in his life.
Savant syndrome is rare. But even more rare are the so-called prodigious savants — handicapped persons who have skills that would be remarkable even if they were to occur in a normal person. There are probably less than 100 prodigious savants described in this last century. Leslie is one in a billion.
Leslie’s Miracle of Love Ministries, as Mary as named it, has as its goal the sharing of Leslie’s gift as an inspiration to handicapped persons and their families, and as a spiritual renewal for all of us. It is a gift Mary has chosen to share, rather than exploit, and it is in this spirit that Leslie gives all of his concerts.
There is some scientific inquiry about savant syndrome, and it poses some vital questions toward understanding ourselves more fully. But May’s explanation when Morley Safer asked her how Leslie can do what he does, is as good as any. “Well, I think, because the brain was damaged, a part of the brain — the musical part — God left perfectly healthy and beautiful so Leslie could have a talent. And he got it!” He certainly did, and we are its beneficiaries.
June 26, 2014: Whatever happened to Leslie Lemke?
A recent Scientific American blog post brings the story of Leslie Lemke up-to-date. He is doing well and still playing and singing beautifully. His is a marvelous and inspiring story of the power of music, determination, love and human potential. Click here to read the blog post.
April 19, 2011: Leslie Lemke in concert—”And Sings My Soul”
Leslie Lemke performed a concert on April 15, 2011 at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wis. Somewhat of a homecoming, it was a concert in Fond du Lac in June, 1980 that launched Leslie’s ultimate celebrity status though a wire service story of the performance, which led to an appearance on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite that Christmas season. Numerous television appearances followed, including That’s Incredible, 60 Minutes. Donahue, Oprah (several times) and many others. Dustin Hoffman was so moved by Leslie’s appearance on 60 Minutes that it influenced his decision to play the savant in the movie Rain Man.
The concert, entitled “And sings my soul” from a line in one of Leslie’s favorite hymns, helped raise funds for an “extreme home remodeling” of the house where Leslie lives with May Lemke’s daughter, Mary Parker, as his guardian and caregiver. Through the years, May, Leslie and Mary have unselfishly shared Leslie’s ‘miracle of music’ as a gift from God, never exploiting him, and living very modestly, often giving concerts for free. Their home is badly in need of repair, including the roof, windows, ramp and furnace, and in need of being made much more handicap accessible for Leslie.
Read more about the concert in the Fond du Lac Reporter.
October 6, 2007: Leslie Lemke in concert
There is a new DVD of Leslie Lemke now available. On Saturday, October 6, 2007, Leslie gave an impressive and touching concert at the Performing Art Center in Pittsville, Wis., which is very near his home in Arpin, Wis. The concert was filmed live in its entirety and is available now on a DVD through the Miracle of Love Ministries in Arpin. The concert was also filmed by Wisconsin Public Television for later broadcast.
The DVD contains 15 songs played and sung by Leslie including a special patriotic tribute to honor all disabled Vietnam War Veterans and Veterans of past wars. The final number was a special Christmas Story for the Children for which Leslie was joined on stage by children in audience to hear his special “legend” set to melody.
The DVD includes “the story” introduction by Dr. Treffert as told at the concert, and a written version of “The Story of Leslie Lemke” as the DVD insert.
The DVD can be ordered from: Miracle of Love Ministries, 8099 Grant Rd, Arpin, WI 54410. Cost is $20. The DVD title is “Leslie Lemke Live in Pittsville.”
October 15, 2003: An Update on Leslie Lemke
Many people remember Leslie Lemke from the very memorable 1983 60 Minutes program on savant syndrome, featuring him along with Alonzo the sculptor and George the calendar calculator. Often inquires come asking “Whatever happened to Leslie Lemke?” A concert in Appleton, Wisconsin last night (October 13, 2003) answers that question convincingly, and inspirationally. Leslie Lemke is as talented, as energetic, as marvelous and as touching as ever. An inspired concert audience of 1200 persons will attest to that.
Leslie’s concert was the culmination of a week-long event in Appleton called “Celebrating Abilities” hosted by a wide group of local Fox Cities organizations spontaneously collaborating, and volunteering, to inspire the community to celebrate the ABILITIES of each person, regardless of their disabilities. Celebrating Abilities included other presentations to school and community groups, as an opportunity for everyone to shine the spotlight on the many contributions disabled persons make throughout the area, and to make the Cities overall a better place to live for persons with special needs.
The concert began with Leslie entering the lighted stage from the darkened wings singing “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound” a capella, and ended with the audience singing and waving goodbye, touched and affected, to the strains of Edelwiess. In between was a demonstration of marvelous musical ability and genius in an incredibly gifted man. Shining through the concert as well, however, was the propelling power of love, dedication, belief and hope that Leslie’s family demonstrates as Mary Parker, May’s daughter, unselfishly carries on May’s miracle. May died in 1993 but the miracle, and the music, continue.
But the concerts such as this are fewer now, in fact infrequent, which made this an even more memorable, important and precious event. The concerts are fewer not because of the loss of energy, talent or ability on Leslie’s part, but because of the colossal effort involved in having Leslie travel, and because of some health limitations on Mary’s part.
Tapes of this concert can be purchased by sending two checks — one for $18 made out to Miracle of Love Ministries, (which will be forwarded to Mary and Leslie) and the other for $5 made out to Dr. Treffert for mailing costs. Orders and checks should be sent to:
Darold A. Treffert, MD W4065 Maplewood Lane Fond du Lac, Wisconsin 54937
Blind Tom was listed in his day at “the eighth wonder of the world.” That would make Leslie the Ninth. On a personal level, during this remarkable concert experience, my scientific interest in synapses and circuits was overshadowed and superceded by the human interest that Leslie Lemke’s story generates in terms of his unique person and potential, and in terms of how often families, like his, unselfishly and proudly go forward filling the special needs of their loved one, relishing and focusing so zealously those talents, attributes and a-bilities that are present even if some other skills are absent or compromised. As to the scientific question, May answered it this way: “Well, I think the brain was damaged. But a part of the brain-the musical part-God left perfectly healthy and beautiful so Leslie could have a talent. And he got it!”
He certainly did, and we are its beneficiaries.
A 28-minute broadcast quality VHS videotape produced by the Weyerhaeuser Corporation featuring Leslie Lemke in a 1986 concert is available. It contains the story and pictures of Leslie’s early life with his foster mother, May Lemke, as related by May’s daughter, Mary Parker, with whom Leslie now resides. Included also is a portion of the memorable 1983 60 Minutes program that featured Leslie, the pianist, along with Alonzo, the sculptor, and George, the Calendar Calculator. It is an excellent portrait of Leslie’s piano playing and vocal abilities along with his remarkable imitative and improvisory vocal and instrumental skills. The tape is available for $24, postpaid, from Darold A. Treffert, MD, W4065 Maplewood Lane, Fond du Lac, WI 54935. (Check should be made out to “Miracle of Love Ministries” and it will be forwarded there.)
For more information, please contact:
Darold A. Treffert, MD
St. Agnes Hospital, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison
Personal website: www.daroldtreffert.com