He isn’t an ordinary guy: professional pilot, marksman, all-round good guy, with an interesting twist. If you tell him a telephone number today, he will remember it in five years. He doesn’t have to look up telephone numbers, frequencies, any number.
That, to me, is odd, strange, interesting, but doesn’t qualify him as a genus or a “savant.”
I remember a telephone number, but don’t know whose.
AMherst 5-6165 reflects when telephone exchanges had names; it is 625-6165, but that doesn’t help.
“Savants” are interesting people. We met savants in the film “Rainman” in which Dustin Hoffman played “Raymond,” an autistic savant with unbelievable abilities with numbers but with otherwise diminished capabilities.
Leslie Lemke has appeared on several television shows. He can replicate a musical piece of any length and complexity on one hearing.
His ability to improvise on the fly is amazing. He is untaught and his keyboard technique shows it. He has never seen a sheet of music because he is blind with severe mental disability.
Leslie’s adopted mother, a nurse, told that within minutes of first encountering a piano he sat down and played songs from memory.
In our time there is also English born Derek Paravicini, who is also an autistic savant with similar musical abilities. Daniel Tammet is a mathematical and language savant. He speaks eleven languages, at last count.
Leslie’s first encounter with a piano reminds me of a story from the 1800s.
Tom Wiggins was born a slave, and blind, in 1849.
He was unable to perform any useful task so he was allowed free run of the farm where he and his parents lived, eventually hearing and encountering a piano.
His story is similar to Leslie’s in that he could play anything he heard, even duplicating musically the sound of trains, birds, machines.
He also improvised on the fly, but many of Tom’s improvisations were transcribed, and sheet music of his “compositions” are available. Recordings were possible during Blind Tom’s performing years, but so far as I know there are no original audio recordings of Blind Tom.
He performed at the White House for President James Buchanan, the first African-American to do so. He was a hands-down performing and famous sensation in his time.
Blind Tom has been a forgotten oddity in our history until recently.
A play was based upon his life, and he was the subject of a 1981 movie.
Pianist John Davis recorded an album of Tom’s “compositions,” now on CD.
“The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist” by Deirdre O’Connell is the latest and seminal source on Tom Wiggins.
There are today a number of functioning savants perhaps because today we understand what they are.
Blind Tom died in 1908, and there are two marked graves.
Joe Phillips writes his “Dear me” columns for several small newspapers. He has many connections to Walker County, including his grandfather, former superintendent Waymond Morgan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.