His talents outshone his every limitation

Born with physical limits, he lifted his voice and sang, excelled at puzzles and made friends.

By STEPHANIE HAYES, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - He had trouble with words. Friends listened carefully to understand.

But when he opened his mouth to sing Battle Hymn of the Republic or Old Man River, the words popped perfectly crisp in smooth baritone.

George Arthur Siemers Jr. had pockets of brilliance.

* * *

He was 3 pounds when he was born, premature. At six weeks, he developed pneumonia and a 108-degree fever. And in 1939, antibiotics weren't an option.

By all expectations, he should have died. But he pulled through to the other side, where cerebral palsy, brain damage, spasticity and a speech impediment waited.

A doctor told his parents to abandon him in an institution. His parents told the doctor to get out of the house.

When music played, his tiny hands and feet went wild. His father, Arthur Sr., said that if he had a baton, his son could have led a band. Mr. Siemers learned to play chess and piano, and Arthur Sr. offered his son $25 to learn Rhapsody in Blue, his favorite song.

When kids teased Mr. Siemers, his big sister, Myrtle Larson, beat them up. Once, at her father's instruction, she jammed a stick into the bicycle wheel of a boy who kept ramming into Mr. Siemers on the 2-mile walk to school.

When the words didn't come out right, she interpreted. She could hear him just fine.

* * *

He was 35 pounds and the size of a 3-year-old when the family moved from Pennsylvania to Florida for the warmth. But he was 7 years old.

Here, he flourished. He excelled at math and puzzles, and could recite which day of the week any historical event occurred. His sister said he was savant-like.

At Northeast High School, people came to love Mr. Siemers. He played the trumpet in the band, and his peers voted him "Most Talented Boy."

Then, his world crumbled.

During Mr. Siemers' senior year, his father died suddenly. His father represented unconditional love and acceptance.

He became sullen, bitter and determined to feel more like a man. He joined the Air Force.

He dreamed of being a navigator. He scored brilliantly on the written tests, Larson said, but his physical limitations were too much. He was honorably discharged with a note calling him a fine young man.

Mr. Siemers felt like he failed. His family was so proud.

"Part of the genius is the dark side, many times," said Larson. "He certainly had the genius."

* * *

He was 90 pounds and 5 feet 2 when he died Tuesday after suffering a stroke. He was 68.

His friends at the Sunshine Senior Center called his home when he didn't show up - he always showed up.

Mr. Siemers was a fixture in downtown St. Petersburg. Twice a week, he ate hot dogs at the Coney Island Grill. He hung out at the senior center, and belonged to the St. Petersburg Chess Club for almost 40 years.

Over the years, his outlook brightened. He had a sweet sense of humor. His favorite joke: A man was walking down the street and asked, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" Practice, practice, practice.

He sang and played music at nursing homes and community centers. He did rapid-fire crossword puzzles and sudoku. And recently, he accomplished his biggest goal: getting his own apartment.


Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or 727 893-8857.

George Arthur Siemers Jr.

Born: Dec. 22, 1938.

Died: Nov. 27, 2007.

Survivors: sister, Myrtle Larson, brother-in-law, Fred Larson; aunt, Mary Lawton Graham; two nieces, a nephew, several cousins and grandnieces.

Services: Visitation from 2 to 4 p.m. today at Anderson McQueen Funeral Home, 2201 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg. Funeral at 2 p.m. Monday, same location. Burial following at Woodlawn Memory Gardens.