Retired attorney's interpretation of famed Hoosier poet is a labor of love

Dave Stafford
July 30, 2014
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Henry Ryder has the quick cadence, the well-timed boom in his voice and the sparkle in his eye as he begins an impromptu performance …

Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers –

An’ when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,

His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,

An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!

It’s James Whitcomb Riley and his noted poem “Little Orphant Annie” that Ryder is channeling, grinning in his dapper circa-1890 vest and waistcoat.

“This is fun!” he said with a laugh recently, his smile nearly as wide as the brim of his top hat. He shared legends and stories of the Hoosier poet at Riley’s historic home and museum in Indianapolis’ Lockerbie neighborhood, where he volunteers and recently appeared in costume for the dedication of a new visitor’s center.

HenryRyder-7-15col.jpg Retired Barnes & Thornburg LLP attorney Henry Ryder poses by the bust of James Whitcomb Riley at the Hoosier poet’s home and museum in Indianapolis. Ryder, 86, will interpret Riley’s poems at the Indiana State Fair Aug. 9. (IL Photo/Eric Learned)

“It’s been a great part of my life, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely,” Ryder said of portraying Riley. He still may pop up in his poet persona occasionally at the Riley House Museum or a school, he said, but Aug. 9 will be his final appearance at the Indiana State Fair, where he’s appeared annually since about 2000.

At 86, Ryder said it’s time for others to honor Riley’s legacy. Where the poet’s words once flowed from memory, he said, he now needs notes.

“You hit your 80s, these things begin to happen,” Ryder said.

“I’m looking at who’s going to follow me,” he said. He’s comforted that young people already are regular Riley interpreters. “We’ve got some good ones,” he said.

Before Ryder began portraying Riley nearly 35 years ago, he was making a name for himself with a distinguished legal career. A leading labor attorney at Barnes & Thornburg LLP, he also was an Indianapolis community leader for decades, helping the city through the transition to Unigov and helping lead its peaceful compliance with court-ordered school desegregation, among other accomplishments.

Last year, Ryder was honored with the Indiana Bar Foundation’s 2013 Legendary Lawyer Award.

On a recent July morning, he dropped in at his former firm dressed as Riley. It makes people smile, Ryder said. Even almost 100 years after Riley’s death, Ryder observes that the poet’s persona and poems continue to resonate with children and bring out the playfulness of adults.

Retired Barnes & Thornburg attorney Michael Rosiello has seen Ryder’s performances many times over the years, and he said the role of Riley seems to come naturally for Ryder.

“When he gives that performance, you can see his love of acting, his love of James Whitcomb Riley, and his love of Indiana,” Rosiello said. “He throws his heart into it when he performs, and he’s very, very good.

“James Whitcomb Riley was a quintessential Hoosier, and so is Henry Ryder,” Rosiello said.

Ryder traces his style in interpreting Riley’s work to an undergraduate classmate in the 1940s at Purdue University who he said had a studied and polished recitation of the work. Ryder said there are very few recordings of Riley performing, but he’s studied as much as he can to try to honor and do justice to the work and Riley’s sometimes-mischievous character.

Judy Hatfield, an assisting director at the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home, said that in his heyday of the 1880s through the early 1900s, Riley was one of the most popular stage performers in the nation, though he confessed to suffering terrible stage fright.

Hatfield said Ryder’s interpretation of Riley is done with good nature and humor.

“He has a mellowness that he projects,” Hatfield said. “He has a very pleasant way of presenting the poems.

“Nobody can do a good job of portraying Mr. Riley without doing a good job with ‘Little Orphant Annie,’” she said. “Mr. Ryder does that very well.”

Hatfield said Ryder also knows the material thoroughly – a must for any interpreter. Running through a list of some of Riley’s works he most commonly performs – “When the Frost Is On the Punkin,” “The Raggedy Man” and others – Ryder stops upon mention of “An Old Sweetheart of Mine.” When he performs that idyllic romantic poem, he emphasizes the penultimate line:

But ah! My dream is broken by a step upon the stair,

And the door is softly opened, and my wife is standing there!

Ryder said at that point of his recitation, his own sweetheart, Marilyn Goeke, appears, and he takes her hand for the conclusion of the poem. “The women love it,” he said.

Riley was born to modest privilege in Greenfield in 1849. His father, Reuben Riley, was a lawyer who had been elected to the Indiana House of Representatives the year before James Whitcomb Riley was born. The senior Riley was a friend of then-Gov. James Whitcomb, for whom Riley was named, and later was a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Ryder said Riley, though, eschewed politics except when he worked for the election of fellow Hoosier Benjamin Harrison as president in 1888. Historical accounts suggest the experience convinced Riley to never again foray into politics.

As a young man, Riley attempted to follow in his father’s footsteps professionally, but it soon became clear “he had no love of the law,” Ryder said. “Being a lawyer, that kind of amused me.”

Riley’s popularity among children became legendary during his lifetime, and Ryder attests that a poem such as “Little Orphant Annie” still gives youngsters giddy, laugh-out-loud thrills.

And it still thrills Ryder, too. Especially when each frenetic stanza about misbehaving children slows down, and he delightfully delivers perhaps the most famous lines of any Hoosier poem:

An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you

Ef you





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  1. Especially I would like to see all the republican voting patriotic good ole boys to stop and understand that the wars they have been volunteering for all along (especially the past decade at least) have not been for God & Jesus etc no far from it unless you think George Washington's face on the US dollar is god (and we know many do). When I saw the movie about Chris Kyle, I thought wow how many Hoosiers are just like this guy, out there taking orders to do the nasty on the designated bad guys, sometimes bleeding and dying, sometimes just serving and coming home to defend a system that really just views them as reliable cannon fodder. Maybe if the Christians of the red states would stop volunteering for the imperial legions and begin collecting welfare instead of working their butts off, there would be a change in attitude from the haughty professorial overlords that tell us when democracy is allowed and when it isn't. To come home from guarding the borders of the sandbox just to hear if they want the government to protect this country's borders then they are racists and bigots. Well maybe the professorial overlords should gird their own loins for war and fight their own battles in the sandbox. We can see what kind of system this really is from lawsuits like this and we can understand who it really serves. NOT US.... I mean what are all you Hoosiers waving the flag for, the right of the president to start wars of aggression to benefit the Saudis, the right of gay marriage, the right for illegal immigrants to invade our country, and the right of the ACLU to sue over displays of Baby Jesus? The right of the 1 percenters to get richer, the right of zombie banks to use taxpayer money to stay out of bankruptcy? The right of Congress to start a pissing match that could end in WWIII in Ukraine? None of that crud benefits us. We should be like the Amish. You don't have to go far from this farcical lawsuit to find the wise ones, they're in the buggies in the streets not far away....

  2. Moreover, we all know that the well heeled ACLU has a litigation strategy of outspending their adversaries. And, with the help of the legal system well trained in secularism, on top of the genuinely and admittedly secular 1st amendment, they have the strategic high ground. Maybe Christians should begin like the Amish to withdraw their services from the state and the public and become themselves a "people who shall dwell alone" and foster their own kind and let the other individuals and money interests fight it out endlessly in court. I mean, if "the people" don't see how little the state serves their interests, putting Mammon first at nearly every turn, then maybe it is time they wake up and smell the coffee. Maybe all the displays of religiosity by American poohbahs on down the decades have been a mask of piety that concealed their own materialistic inclinations. I know a lot of patriotic Christians don't like that notion but I entertain it more and more all the time.

  3. If I were a judge (and I am not just a humble citizen) I would be inclined to make a finding that there was no real controversy and dismiss them. Do we allow a lawsuit every time someone's feelings are hurt now? It's preposterous. The 1st amendment has become a sword in the hands of those who actually want to suppress religious liberty according to their own backers' conception of how it will serve their own private interests. The state has a duty of impartiality to all citizens to spend its judicial resources wisely and flush these idiotic suits over Nativity Scenes down the toilet where they belong... however as Christians we should welcome them as they are the very sort of persecution that separates the sheep from the wolves.

  4. What about the single mothers trying to protect their children from mentally abusive grandparents who hide who they truly are behind mounds and years of medication and have mentally abused their own children to the point of one being in jail and the other was on drugs. What about trying to keep those children from being subjected to the same abuse they were as a child? I can understand in the instance about the parent losing their right and the grandparent having raised the child previously! But not all circumstances grant this being OKAY! some of us parents are trying to protect our children and yes it is our God given right to make those decisions for our children as adults!! This is not just black and white and I will fight every ounce of this to get denied

  5. Mr Smith the theory of Christian persecution in Indiana has been run by the Indiana Supreme Court and soundly rejected there is no such thing according to those who rule over us. it is a thought crime to think otherwise.