Tony Melendez has serenaded Pope John Paul II and performed in front of thousands, but he says he is still shocked by the emotional reaction from the people he touches with his music.
“Some of the people’s responses are so touching,” Melendez said. “I can’t believe the response Some come crying and give me a hug. Some want to kiss the same cheek the pope kissed.”
The strong reactions are not just because Melendez, 26, sings with a smooth tenor voice, or that he plays nearly flawless acoustic guitar.
People are inspired because Melendez was born without arms and plays guitar with his feet, in a seemingly effortless manner.
Whole new world
“The music has just opened up a whole new world for me,” Melendez said before a performance Saturday night at St. Rita’s School, 4433 Douglas Ave.
“It’s been scary,” he said of the reaction he gets. “I’m not used to that overwhelming thrust toward me.”
Melendez, of Chino, Calif., performed for about 200 people at St. Rita’s, combining Christian music, storytelling and a healthy sense of humor.
Melendez is at ease with the fact he has no arms and does not consider himself handicapped. He even calls his company “Toe Jam Music.”
He told the group he stopped using prostheses because “my feet could do it so much faster quicker, neater. People ask me, ‘Do you eat with your toes or your feet?’ ” he said. “I eat with my mouth.”
With the guitar flat on the stage before him, Melendez’s bare feet glided up and down the strings effortlessly, while he sang about hope, inspiration and God.
As he walked to and from the stage, people pulled him aside for a hug, or kissed him like he was their own son.
“It still to me is very surprising,” he said. Crowd response comes from “a lot of young, and old. It’s really neat.”
Melendez earned national recognition last year when he played and sang for John Paul II– a performance that so moved the pontiff he touched Melendez’s legs and kissed his cheek.
Eight months later, Melendez recalls that performance as “a moment in my life I never thought would happen.”
John Paul’s reaction was nothing short of shocking to Melendez.
“I thought I was going to sing, then ‘clap, clap, clap and go home,” he said. “It really was a true blessing for me when he came over and gave me that kiss.”
In the time since, Melendez has been to 29 states, sometimes doing three performances a day.
Melendez was born in Nicaragua in 1962. His mother took thalidomide, an anti-nausea drug that caused the birth defect he has overcome. He spent much of his life in schools for handicapped children, but decided as a high school sophomore he wanted to be in public schools.
It was at about that time, when he was 16 he first tried playing his father’s guitar, after learning how to tune it with his feet.
“I did it and it just worked, and I kept at it,” he said. “I didn’t consider it practice. I loved it so much, I played five to six hours a day.”
While still getting a case of stage fright now and then, Melendez said the music helped him grow. He now promotes a pro-family, pro-love message during performances.
Music opens doors
”Once I start, it just automatically flows,” he said “Once I’m up there, something just takes over.”
Music “opened a lot of doors,” he said. “It’s given me a little more sense of security.
“I think they (spectators) sometimes go home saying, ‘If he can do it, I can do it,’ ” Melendez said. “When people go home, they feel a little bit better about themselves.”
Jose Melendez Jr., Tony’s concert manager, told the St. Rita’s crowd he learned things by watching his brother. He said one day when the pair was younger, he wanted to play Frisbee, but could not bring himself to ask, for fear he would hurt Tony’s feelings.
But Tony picked up the Frisbee in his toes and threw it, striking Jose in the face. It was then, Jose said, he realized his brother’s strength.
“That’s the first time I saw his arms and his hands.” ♦
Postscript: Tony Melendez continues touring, recording music and sharing his story around the world. He performed for Pope John Paul II four more times. He has recorded a number of contemporary Christian albums. He is married and lives in Branson, Missouri.
UNION GROVE, Wisconsin — Louis Armstrong, Liberace and Tiny Tim made concert appearances here Thursday. Well, not really, but it was probably as close as anyone has ever come to imitating the performers.
For nearly two hours, Leslie Lemke, 35, of Arpin, Wis., performed flawless piano and voice renditions of “Satchmo,” the king of the candelabra and the man who tiptoed through the tulips, among others.
If any of the 700 or so students and teachers in attendance at Union Grove High School had closed their eyes, they could have easily imagined Liberace’s glittery Rolls Royce, Tiny Tim’s ukulele or Armstrong’s smiling face and sassy delivery.
All this came from Leslie, a man with no eyes, severe brain damage, cerebral palsy and an IQ of of 58.
Leslie cannot carry on a dialogue or feed himself, and he requires constant care. He has never taken music lessons, plays piano with only nine fingers and cannot see the keyboard.
Yet he is a musical virtuoso.
In 1971, Leslie sat down at the piano and shocked his parents by playing a rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
It is difficult to come up with words to describe or explain Leslie’s abilities. Those who see him perform call it amazing. His family chooses stronger terms.
“I feel it is a miracle from God,” said Juanita Voge, Leslie’s niece. “I’ve been around him all my life, and it still amazes me.”
“I believe it’s a gift that God has given Leslie,” said Mary Parker Larsen, Leslie’s sister and caretaker. “He has the mentality of being 1 to 3 years old, yet, in this field, he’s a genius.”
Leslie has been featured on television’s “That’s Incredible” and in was the subject of an ABC Afterschool Special, “The Woman who Willed a Miracle.”
Leslie’s ability is known as the savant syndrome. Despite his disabilities, he has an island of brilliance that allows him, based on one listen, to reproduce any piece of music, even years later.
And reproduce he did.
A smooth baritone by nature Leslie’s vocal range is as broad as his piano repertoire, from the lowest gravel of Armstrong to the highest falsetto of Tiny Tim.
The Union Grove students, who might be expected to be restless with distraction during an assembly, were mesmerized. They heard Leslie perform near-perfect renditions of Vangelis’ “Chariots of Fire,” Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” and Armstrong’s “Hello, Dolly.”
He then accepted challenges from students and teachers, who came on stage and played short songs on drums, trumpet, trombone, flute and oboe. Then they listened to Leslie play the tunes note-for-note.
Union Grove was the latest concert stop for Leslie, who continues his tour into North Dakota and Iowa. He recently played 31 concerts in 33 days in Japan.
“We like to compare Leslie’s story with a rose,” Larsen told the group. “It starts out as a rosebud and it slowly opens up into a beautiful flower.”
Larsen said Leslie – one of 12 known savants in the world – keeps expanding his ability and learning more music. He has never studied a sheet of music. He has always learned by repetition,” Larsen said.
“If we weren’t so busy flying around the world … he could probably master every instrument we gave him.”
Despite a repertoire that includes many classics, Leslie will never admit he doesn’t know a song.
“Leslie always says yes,” Larsen said. “Then he nicely makes up a song to replace the one he doesn’t know.”
Larsen said she and Leslie travel the country performing to try to have an impact on people, as part of a “ministry of love.”
The idea is to “bring a miracle of l love,” she said. “That’s one of our main purposes – to bring happiness to other people.” ♦
– This article originally appeared on Page 1 of the Racine Journal Times on October 2, 1987. View the original newspaper page. This blog post has been updated with more information on Leslie in 2017.
Postscript: Leslie’s adoptive mother, Mae Lemke, died in 1993. According to Dr. Darold Treffert, an internationally recognized expert on savant syndrome, Leslie is doing well and “playing as marvelously as ever.” He lives with his sister, Mary Parker, in north central Wisconsin.
DACHAU, Germany — Forty-six years after it was liberated from Adolf Hitler’s brutal regime, an unsettling quiet hangs over the massive grounds of Germany’s first Nazi concentration camp.
A cool wind rustles through the dead leaves of last season. It whispers what seems to be an audible tale of the cruelty and atrocities committed here between 1933 and 1945.
Village near Munich
The picturesque village of Dachau, a 1,200-year-old community in southern Bavaria, is located only a few miles northeast of Munich. The area has a rich culture of its own, but the world will always associate Dachau with death.
Dachau records show 31,957 registered deaths between 1933 and 1945, but many historians believe the number is much higher. The tally does not include the scores who arrived dead in train cars from other camps.
When American soldiers liberated the camp on April 29, 1945, there were bodies all over the camp. A mass grave was established near the camp, where about 4,000 people were buried shortly after liberation.
The concentration camp site, on the northern outskirts of Dachau, has been maintained by the Committee International de Dachau as a permanent memorial and reminder of what happened here.
Directly inside the original electrified barbed wire fence is a museum that opened in 1960. The rest of the site opened as a memorial in 1965.
The museum holds haunting pictures of the torture, starvation and death that were everyday occurrences here. A stunning film was confiscated from German soldiers when the Allies liberated the camp.
In the center of the museum is a heart-rending picture of an emaciated prisoner laying flat on his stomach, arms outstretched, The look on his face seems like a silent cry for help.
Other pictures show stacks of corpses waiting for incineration at Dachau’s two crematorium buildings, piles of valuables pilfered from prisoners, and two men — hung upside down — being beaten by smiling Nazi SS guards.
There are also depictions of the cruel experiments carried out by the SS, which stands for Schutzstaffel — Hitler’s elite police. Some prisoners were put in special suits to determine how they reacted to depressurization.
An original torture rack stands in the center of one room of the museum.
In a display case hang examples of the identification badges prisoners were forced to wear. Jews wore stars of David. Non-German prisoners wore colored chevrons: green meant professional criminal, black meant “asocial,” violet was for “Bible inquirers,” and pink was for homosexuals.
Outside, the cement foundations of the 34 barracks stretch for hundreds of yards. The barracks were decrepit and rotting when the camp was liberated. They were torn down, but two were rebuilt as part of the memorial.
Each building was designed for 80 prisoners, yet at the height of the war, some held more than 400.
In the courtyards between the barracks, prisoners once stood for roll call. Sometimes, they stood motionless for hours in rain or snow, the so-called “standing torture” that claimed many lives.
Even the dead had to show up for roll call, dragged by compatriots who were forced to make sure the deceased were counted each day.
The original front gate still open-, adorned in iron by the camp motto – Arbeit Macht Frei – a cruelly ironic phrase that roughly means, “Work shall make you free.”
Just outside the perimeter fence are the two crematorium buildings that were once so busy that rotting bodies stacked up in a gruesome backlog.
The oven doors stand open. On the hinge of one door hangs a single, drying rose. A wreath hangs on an oven in the adjacent room.
Prisoners who died here were often shot to death. Others died of disease or torture. No one was gassed to death at Dachau, although a shower room for gassing had been installed. Prisoners marked for gassing were sent to Linz, Austria.
Several chapels were erected on the site in the 1960s, as if in an attempt to heal the destruction wrought at the camp. The Carmelite order of nuns built a convent here.
A huge granite memorial near the entrance sums up the reason the camp has been maintained for so long:
“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933-1945 because they resisted Nazism help to unite the living for the defense of peace and freedom, and in respect for their fellow men.” ♦
Trickster Makes Short Work of Racine Jail
By Joseph Hanneman
Most husbands gave candy or sent flowers to their wives on Valentine’s Day. Todd Martin escaped from jail.
The 23-year-old Houdini-style escape artist from Sheboygan slipped out of two pairs of handcuffs, a belly chain, a canvas mailbag, three iron-bar jail doors and a locked wooden door Wednesday at the Racine City Jail.
And it took only seven minutes.
After defeating the final lock at the jail Wednesday, Martin chatted with reporters and gave his wife, Amara, a Valentine’s kiss. Another day, another jailbreak.
Relatively long time
“That’s the longest I’ve ever been held,” said Martin, who has broken out of the pokey some dozen times before. “You sure can be proud of yourselves.”
The man who calls himself Anthony the Great wore a black stretch body suit and cape as he was led to his cell, trailed by dignitaries that included Mayor N. Owen Davies, Sheriff Robert Rohner and Alderwoman Dorothy Constantine.
Alderman Michael Vidian patted Martin down and checked his hair and mouth for tools. Police Chief Karl Hansen put two pairs of handcuffs on Martin, and shackled his forearm to a belly chain. He was then placed in a canvas mailbag and locked in the cell at exactly 2:18 p.m.
The gathered throng of local officials, reporters and photographers waited in the hall outside the jail as Martin plied his trade. All they could hear was the rattle of each lock as he made his way closer.
Then, at 2 25 p.m., he emerged.
“I’m glad we’re closing the jail on the first of April,” Hansen quipped. The jail will be gutted to make way for a new communications center and city prisoners will be transferred to the county jail.
Martin said the lock on the jail cell was the most difficult to open, because it had a weighted spring that held down the lock hook.
“It’s difficult to manipulate a lock like that,” he said.
Try it in a coffin
The escape was probably a yawner for Martin, who escaped from a locked coffin in 1988 after being tossed from an airplane 13,500 feet above Sandwich, Ill.
When he was 18, he was sealed in a hole-riddled coffin and pushed into the Sheboygan River while covered in 20 pounds of chains and 500 pounds of rock. He escaped in 50 seconds.
“I think I did a good job,” he said matter-of-factly. “Two hours would have been a good time.”
After the escape, Martin posed for pictures in the locked cell and recreated parts of the escape for a national television crew. When the last photo had been snapped, he called for the jailer.
“Now I need a key,” he said. ♦
Postscript: Now age 51, Martin continues to perform under the name Anthony Martin (Anthony is his middle name). He is also a Christian evangelist. In 2013, he published a book, Escape or Die: An Escape Artist Unlocks the Secrets to Cheating Death.
This is a blast from the past of the author of this blog. Reporter Joe Hanneman (skinny guy with hair at left) takes notes at a press event in Racine, Wisconsin, held by Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. The photo was taken around 1988. Hanneman covered Wisconsin state politics and the Wisconsin Legislature for The Journal Times, Racine’s daily newspaper. The event was likely some kind of economic development announcement from the governor’s office. Also visible in the photo are Racine County Executive Dennis Kornwolf, State Sen. Joseph Strohl of Racine and State Rep. E. James Ladwig of Caledonia. Some 27 years later, Hanneman has neither thick hair nor thin waist.