Sunday Rutland Herald

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 had written.

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 working days.

"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 state song.

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 poems."

"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 tingle."

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.

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