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Whatever Happened to Leslie Lemke?


A picture of Leslie and May Lemke published in the Chicago Tribune's Sunday magazine in 1988.

In June 1980 Leslie Lemke and his remarkable foster mother May Lemke gave a concert in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin that has reverberated over the years throughout the world. Walter Cronkite featured the duo in his Christmas story that year. Appearances on 60 Minutes, That’s Incredible, Oprah (three times) and rounds of all the other TV talk shows followed. The story became the movie The Woman Who Willed a Miracle with Cloris Leachman playing May Lemke. Leslie toured in Norway, Japan and throughout the United States. Dustin Hoffman says he was moved to tears by Leslie’s performance on 60 Minutes and subsequently the movie Rain Man put savant syndrome on the international radar screen.

So many people remember and were touched by Leslie and May. I am asked so often, in my lectures and on the savant syndrome website,, whatever happened to Leslie Lemke? Let me bring this extraordinary story up to date.

A recent photo of Leslie Lemke and Mary Parker.

Leslie is alive and well, and still playing marvelously in Arpin, Wisconsin. He lives with Mary Parker, May’s daughter, who has lovingly taken on the caregiver role after May died in 1993. Leslie could have been a millionaire, but instead Leslie and Mary live a very modest lifestyle in an aging home in North Central Wisconsin. May and Mary felt that Leslie’s gift of music is a miracle that should be shared unselfishly with others without undue gain or exploitation.

I have had the privilege of seeing, and hearing, Leslie for over 30 years now. And that has been an extraordinary journey for me, a demonstration of the power of music, of the strength of love, faith, optimism and belief from family, friends and caregivers, and of the depth of human potential, sometimes hidden.

A picture of Leslie Lemke and the author published in the Chicago Tribune's Sunday magazine in 1988.

Leslie’s piano skills are innate and extensive. He can remember a piece of any length and play it back flawlessly after a single hearing. That’s what caught May’s attention that night when at age 14 he played back Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 after hearing it for the first time in the soundtrack to a movie. That massive musical memory is remarkable, but all the more so because Leslie is blind, cannot read music and has never had a music lesson in his life.

From replication to improvisation to creation

Leslie will still play back and sing any song that an audience member might provide as a challenge and it is almost impossible to “stump Leslie” however hard people try. But if it is a song Leslie has never heard before, you will get a song anyway. He will make one up on the spot, lyrics included. If Mary presses Leslie on whether it is in fact the song requested, Leslie will often sheepishly confess, “I’m making it up.” So he composes on the spot, often in a very witty way. At home, he also composes his own songs, such as “Down on the Farm in Arpin” or “Bird Song,” in which he imitates the birds he loves to listen to with some cleaver whistling as he weaves that into the tune he has composed.

In so doing Leslie demonstrates a transition I have seen in other savants as well. It begins with remarkable memory repetition, whether playing back a piece just heard or drawing an entire city, building by building, after a 30-minute helicopter ride, for example. Savants become bored with such precise repetition, stunning as it is. So they begin to improvise. Leslie will play back a song dutifully, for example, but after completing it, he will then launch into a five or ten-minute ‘variations on the theme’ concerto, beautifully crafted. A savant that paints might put in a tree where there was none in the scene, or remove a telephone wire that seemed to interfere with the picture. After improvisation comes creation of something entirely new, such as Leslie now composing on the spot during concerts while sitting outside, as he loves to do on his little farm. In the case of visual artists, entirely new, creative paintings, drawings or sculptures emerge.

This transition demonstrates that savants are not mere tape recorders or copy machines. They can improvise with originality, or create something entirely new.

Savants and IQ—The case for multiple intelligences

Leslie has a measured verbal IQ of 58. Performance scales were not used because they depend heavily on performance interfered with by his blindness. Other tests concluded he was functioning in the moderately disabled range of intelligence. But I have a TV clip from one of his concerts in which Leslie was asked to play a piece he had never heard before with a pianist rather than after the pianist completed the piece. He waited about three seconds after the pianist began and then listening to what he just heard (input) he processed it, and then played back what he had just heard (output)—all simultaneously. Leslie was parallel processing, just as some translators are able to do, translating as the speaker speaks rather than pausing. That parallel processing does not occur when IQ is only 58.

Leslie Lemke and Mary Parker during a performance in 2011.

Leslie, and many other savants I have met, makes a persuasive case for multiple intelligences. IQ does measure something, which we might call traditional intelligence. But savants, 70 percent of whom have an IQ below 70, also show what I perceive to be musical intelligence, artistic intelligence or mathematical intelligence, to name several. And there are, I believe, other types of intelligence as well in all of us, and others have posited the same.

Equally striking, however, is the fact that these forms of intelligence in savants are there innately. They come “factory installed.” Clearly, Leslie and many other savants “know things they never learned.” To me, the only mechanism that makes that possible is “genetic” or “ancestral” memory. Such memory is the genetic transmission of not only skills and abilities, but also the inherited “knowledge” accompanying those skills such as the “rules” of music, art or mathematics. They inherit the “nature” part of the genius equation. “Nurture” then contributes mightily to the advancement of those skills and abilities.

I discuss this in more length in a chapter titled “Savant syndrome: A compelling case for innate talent” in Scott Kaufman’s recent book The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent and Greatness. My convictions about the presence of genetic memory—a little Rain Man perhaps—in all of us has been reinforced by the surfacing of dormant talent in the acquired savant following some sort of central nervous system trauma or disease. But discussion of that is for another time.

The DVD of Leslie Lemke's "And Sings My Soul" concert at TKUNI in April 2011.

In summary, for those who wonder what ever happened to Leslie Lemke, he is alive and well in North Central Wisconsin, playing as vigorously and marvelously as ever. He is more verbal than before, more accomplished musically and more creative and witty.

The transition from replication to improvisation to creative ability has been impressive and is a blueprint for similar progress I have seen in other savants if one observes them over enough time rather than as a single snapshot. Some fear that savant skills might somehow disappear as suddenly as they did appear. That has not happened with Leslie nor with any of the other savants I have had the privilege to follow. And family encouragement, unconditional love, patience and belief are vital ingredients to growth and progress in these extraordinary people.

Leslie returned to Fond du Lac in April 2011 for his “And Sings My Soul” concert at Marian University. What change and progress has occurred over those 31 years. There is a DVD of that concert available, or you bring yourself up-to-date on Leslie on the savant syndrome website,

Whatever happened to Leslie Lemke? There is much news, and all of it good.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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