When Leslie Lemke was born on January 31, 1952, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, no one expected him to live. He was born prematurely with severe brain damage, cerebral palsy, and glaucoma; retinal damage soon followed. His mother abandoned him.
After a few weeks, Leslie's damaged eyes had to be surgically removed and he was very ill in many ways. His doctors knew of a very kind-hearted nurse-governess named May Lemke. They asked her if she would take the baby in to provide hospice-type care for him, knowing he couldn't possibly survive much longer. Lemke, the 52-year-old mother of five grown children, said she would take him in but she would not let him die.
Leslie moved in with his new adoptive parents, May and her husband, Joe. May is said to have tended to Leslie "like a frail little flower." Leslie couldn't swallow so Mary pushed food down his throat for a year before he learned how to do it himself.
Leslie made no sounds, did not move, and showed no emotions. He learned to stand when he was 12 and started walking at 15. To encourage movement, May would put his hands on top of hers as she played the piano. She put his feet on hers to encourage walking. The IQ score of about 95% of the general population ranges between 70 and 130. Leslie's IQ was 58.
One night when Leslie was 14, he sat with May and Joe as they watched a movie on television. Later that night, May woke to the sound of music. Thinking the TV was left on, she followed the music and found Leslie at the piano, flawlessly playing Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, the theme song of the movie they'd watched earlier. The Lemke's were not fans of classical music; Leslie had never heard it before. May says that night God's miracle came into full bloom.
Leslie could play an exact duplicate of any song he heard only once. He'd never had piano lessons so he knew how to play without ever learning how. Music also seemed to make Leslie come alive like nothing else could.
Small performances at local public events spread the news of Leslie's amazing musical gift. National and international tours followed, where an audience member would join Leslie on stage, play a tune on a piano, and Leslie would repeat it. Most concerts were free. May was not interested in capitalizing on Leslie's gift; her mission was to spread the news of God's miraculous ways.
Word of Leslie got to TV's 60 Minutes, where he was featured in a segment in 1983. Dustin Hoffman saw it and was "moved to tears." A few years later, he was offered the starring role in a movie called Rain Man, about a young man and his older autistic brother. The movie was based on the story of Kim Peek who was not autistic but had a number of congenital neurological disorders. The movie's producers wanted Hoffman to play the younger brother.
Hoffman said no. Remembering Lemke on TV, Hoffman said he'd play the older autistic brother instead. His performance prompted a national conversation about autism and earned Hoffman an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
In 1984, Alzheimer's disease was taking its toll on May so she and Leslie moved into the home of her youngest daughter, Mary. Joe died in 1987 and Alzheimer's claimed May in 1993. Leslie still lives with Mary but concert performances are rare these days due to the logistical complications of travel with Leslie and Mary's failing health.
- Treffert, Darold, MD. "Leslie Lemke" An Inspirational Performance." Wisconsin Medical Society. Wisconsin Medical Society. Apr 19, 2011 (update). Web. Apr 28, 2014.
- "Transcript for Darold Treffert on Extraordinary Brains." To the best of our Knowledge. Wisconsin Public Radio. Oct 30, 2012. Web. Apr 28, 2014.