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

Dave Stafford
July 30, 2014
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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





Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. This state's high court has spoken, the fair question is answered. Years ago the Seventh Circuit footnoted the following in the context of court access: "[2] Dr. Bowman's report specifically stated that Brown "firmly believes he is obligated as a Christian to put obedience to God's laws above human laws." Dr. Bowman further noted that Brown expressed "devaluing attitudes towards pharmacological or psycho-therapeutic mental health treatment" and that he made "sarcastic remarks devaluing authority of all types, especially mental health authority and the abortion industry." 668 F.3d 437 (2012) SUCH acid testing of statist orthodoxy is just and meet in Indiana. SUCH INQUISITIONS have been green lighted. Christians and conservatives beware.

  2. It was all that kept us from tyranny. So sad that so few among the elite cared enough to guard the sacred trust. Nobody has a more sacred obligation to obey the law than those who make the law. Sophocles No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we ask him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor. Theodore Roosevelt That was the ideal ... here is the Hoosier reality: The King can do no wrong. Legal maxim From the Latin 'Rex non potest peccare'. When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal. Richard Nixon

  3. So men who think they are girls at heart can use the lady's potty? Usually the longer line is for the women's loo, so, the ladies may be the ones to experience temporary gender dysphoria, who knows? Is it ok to joke about his or is that hate? I may need a brainwash too, hey! I may just object to my own comment, later, if I get myself properly "oriented"

  4. Heritage, what Heritage? The New Age is dawning .... an experiment in disordered liberty and social fragmentation is upon us .... "Carmel City Council approved a human rights ordinance with a 4-3 vote Monday night after hearing about two hours of divided public testimony. The ordinance bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, among other traits. Council members Rick Sharp, Carol Schleif, Sue Finkam and Ron Carter voted in favor of it. The three council members opposing it—Luci Snyder, Kevin Rider and Eric Seidensticker—all said they were against any form of discrimination, but had issues with the wording and possible unintended consequences of the proposal." Kardashian is the new Black.

  5. Can anyone please tell me if anyone is appealing the law that certain sex offenders can't be on school property. How is somebody supposed to watch their children's sports games or graduations, this law needs revised such as sex offenders that are on school property must have another non-offender adult with them at all times while on school property. That they must go to the event and then leave directly afterwards. This is only going to hurt the children of the offenders and the father/ son mother/ daughter vice versa relationship. Please email me and let me know if there is a group that is appealing this for reasons other than voting and religion. Thank you.