In This State
November 26, 2000
(from the State section)
Grandson recites his forebear's verses by heart
By ED BARNA Freelance Writer
Before television, before radio, before vaudeville,
people entertained each other by singing, telling stories
and reciting poems from memory.
That at least is what Christopher Abair of Colchester
came to believe after typing up the handwritten poems
that his grandfather George Albert "Bert" Leddy
A retired IBM systems engineer who had never studied
literature, Abair wasn't sure at first what to make of
the sometimes melodramatic and sentimental verses that
his forebear had left behind. Then he tried memorizing
some of them so that he could say them aloud, and found
that they came alive in a new way.
"By heart" was the old phrase for knowing
poems or dramatic lines well enough to relive them, and
Abair uses it now when he explains how performing Leddy's
poems for live audiences has become a passion.
"I do it for small groups, without a microphone,"
he said - the same way Leddy recited for co-workers and
friends at the hardware store where he spent most of his
"The Poetry of George Albert Leddy," Abair's
compilation of 39 works together with a biography of
their author, is now in search of a publisher. But
Abair's main form of distribution is through readings,
which he has been giving regularly at the Ethan Allen
Homestead in Burlington and sometimes at nursing homes.
Hearing Abair recite, it's easy to see that he's found
a gold mine, to use a metaphor that Leddy probably would
have liked. It's as if someone from another era has taken
over his body, spinning the yarns with a cracker-barrel
storyteller's animated gestures and making them crackle
with a classic Vermont accent perfectly suited to the way
the words are arranged.
"I'm not trying to do it," Abair said of the
rural Vermont accent. "I didn't think it was an
accent. It was the way everybody talked."
As literary art, Leddy's rhyme-and-meter narratives
probably wouldn't make the cut at most contemporary
poetry journals. Their titles include "Gambler Dan,"
"Christmas Eve in the Arctic," "Vengeance
on the Sea," "The Tale of the Toreador,"
"The Bandit," and "The Blackguard."
But when Abair switches on his Ancient Mariner eyes
and recounts the story of a lonely old man's love for a
dilapidated but memory-laden picket fence, or tells of a
Civil War soldier losing his sweetheart to a cowardly and
lying brother, the works twist the heartstrings. Like the
poems of wildly popular early 20th century writer Robert
W. Service, well known to Leddy and obviously a model,
these tales seem likely to find a receptive audience.
At the very least, Abair has rescued the memory of one
of Vermont's colorfully creative characters. Born in a
logging camp and raised on a farm, Leddy came to
Burlington and quickly showed a knack for invention.
He built ice cream and candy-making machines, and at
one point set up in business with them on Church Street _
a Bert without a Jerry, so to speak.
At his home, Leddy built one of the first snowmobiles
by putting a studded wheel rim on the rear of a sleigh
and using a motorcycle engine to turn it.
The family creativity has continued into Abair's
generation. Chris's brothers Phil and Dave perform as the
rock band The Abair Brothers, and his sister Carol, a
songwriter, was a finalist in the competition to create a
Chris Abair said the family story is that Leddy longed
to join the Klondike Gold Rush, and when that proved
impossible, he relived it as many did, through the poems
of Service, such as "The Shooting of Dan McGrew"
and "The Cremation of Sam McGee."
Though not "educated," Abair's grandfather
found a knack for verse that led him to write poems for
friends and for special occasions as well as tales of
derring-do. "He would walk around the house reading
poetry. A lot of the time he'd read Robert Service's
"We remember him in his last years, sitting in
his bedroom, typing," Chris Abair said.
When Service died in 1958 at the age of 84, an
obituary in a Pittsburgh paper observed that he was not a
favorite of the literati, but was still one of this
country's greats, as "a people's poet." The Sun-Telegraph
wrote, "They understood him, and knew that any verse
carrying the by-line of Robert W. Service would be a
lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out
a story with a dramatic intensity that made the nerves
At least for some poems, those words could apply
equally well to Leddy's works. As Abair continues his
mission of bringing his grandfather's writings to a
larger audience, Vermonters will get to judge whether
there was real buried treasure in that batch of old
papers he found.