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.
“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