Farewell to the Seanchaí

Leonard McKay 1921-2006

The most revered member of Celtic society in ancient Ireland was the seanchaí, or “storyteller”—the man who carried the sum total of tribal knowledge in his memory and recited variations of colorful legends created by the ancestors to carry kernels of truth and information from one generation to the next. Leonard McKay was our seanchaí. History, lore and legend—and the “creative elaboration” thereof—were his stock in trade, having learned the craft from his acknowledged predecessor, Clyde Arbuckle, in the old-fashioned way.

Leonard knew that history was a lot more than a list of “big happenings.” For him, a true populist, it was the stuff of everyman’s everyday existence. All knowledge worth knowing was stored away in the stories of those billions of lives lived by ordinary people all over the world—not kings and queens, dictators and presidents, or celebrities and heroes. Like the Hindus, he saw all life and history as part of an infinite flowing continuum, a sacred river of endless depths to immerse himself in and explore. That’s where I like to think of him now; he has just moved on ahead to a different part of the river and we’ll catch up with him later.

Leonard touched my life as few have. I come from a family of storytellers, mostly of the tall tale variety, so I felt an immediate connection to him when we introduced ourselves to each other at the San Jose Athletic Club one morning nearly seven years ago, right after I moved here. The first thing he told me was his story of the downtown fireman whose manhood was cut short by a jealous wife a la John Wayne Bobbitt. That was it; I was hooked. Since then, I have spent hundreds of pleasurable hours listening to him tell his stories, hearing some of them many times but never the same way twice.

Nobody was happier than me when Leonard agreed to contribute a weekly column to our rapidly growing website, San Jose Inside.com. Suddenly, we all felt we really had something worthwhile going, and Leonard’s following on our site was enormous. I have been a professional publisher, writer and editor for a long time, but I have never had more fun than I had working with Leonard on his pieces every week. Lately, we have been talking about finally getting his book, “The Seamy Side of San Jose,” up and running; he would write it and I would edit it. I thought we could do it in no time. And, even though I make my living doing that kind of work, I was going to do it just for the fun of it because I figured the stories and the comradeship with my remarkable friend was worth more than any amount of coins and paper with pictures of dead presidents. I don’t know what Leonard left behind of this project, but I still hope it can be done. In the meantime, his archive of stories on San Jose Inside will be there for his legion of fans to read and comment on any time, any day.

Leonard was not high tech. His home was his hard drive and he lived amongst his database of files, books, documents, scraps of paper, photographs and paintings. He did his research the old-fashioned way, and he had everything he needed to supplement the encyclopedia he had packed away in is head. I was always trying to trip him up on something just for the fun of it and never could, though I did come close.

One day several months ago, I’m editing one of Leonard’s columns for San Jose Inside where there is a passing reference to a man with a common name, but the spelling is odd.

“Aha!” I think in my evil Snidely Whiplash editor’s voice, “I have really caught Dudley Do-Right McKay out this time and have him in my clutches, nyah ah ahhhh.”

So, I gleefully call up Leonard and I read the sentence and say, “Are you sure you spelled the name right? I have never seen such a spelling.”

“I think it’s right, but hold on and I’ll check it,” says Leonard. He puts the phone down and, for a couple of minutes—while I sit snickering like a bad schoolboy smugly convinced that I have stumped the master—I hear faint humming, mumbling, cursing, and then the thud of a book landing next to the phone receiver, the flick of pages and, I swear, the sound of a finger tracing a straight line down a page and then stopping in its tracks. Leonard picks up the receiver and says, “Yep, it’s OK, Jack, I just found it.”

“Found it? Found it where?” I ask.

“In the 1928 San Jose phone book,” he says.

“Jesus, Leonard, how many old phone books do you have?”

Oh, I got ‘em all—all the way back to Alexander Graham Bell,” he tells me.

“But . . . I don’t understand. Why did you look in 1928?”

“Well,” he says, “I’ll tell ya; that fella went broke in ’29—lost everything—and by 1930 he didn’t even have a pot to piss in.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” I say, “the poor guy.”

“Aw, hell, Jack, don’t feel too sorry for him. Last time anybody saw him was in ’31 down on Post Street, comin’ outta Big Tit Mary’s place with a cat-eatin’-shit smile on his face, so he must’ve picked up a coupl’a bucks somewhere.”

While I was trying to stop laughing and crying at the same time, he never skipped a beat and said the one thing that I have heard him say hundreds of times—the one phrase that I will always remember him for as long as I live, a personalized variation of his favorite words in his own unique voice, the voice of our seanchaí:

“Hey, Jack! That reminds me—did I ever tell you the story about . . . ?”

12 Comments

  1. The two posts concerning politics that were here have been moved under John McEnery’s column from Friday. We are happy to have political discussion today but out of respect to the memory of our friend and colleague, we ask that our bloggers make any comments unrelated to the life and memory of Leonard McKay on another part of the site.

    Thanks to the readers who brought this matter to our attention.

  2. As a California native I learned more in the last few months than years of public school and a lifetime of reading.  He brought history to life and life to history. 

    I’ve often watched children at libraries and bookstores, completely lost in hearing a story come to life.  Leonard’s columns were story hours for me…  A safe time to sit and listen in wonder, a time to simply take joy in a story well told and a time where we could all put aside our differences.  A time I will miss. 

    I truly hope that the book project somehow moves forward if for no other reason than to honor a delightful story teller.

  3. In the spring of 2001, I was lucky enough to begin my enrollment at the University of Leonard McKay, Memorabilia of San Jose campus. My class load was a heavy one, but I took to each with vigor and determination to make my insructor proud. The schedule included courses on Early Californian Historians, H.H. Bancroft, et al; book restoration and preservation; and systematic dating of San Jose photographs by relevant landmarks.

    Each week would bring a whole new list of projects I wished to pursue, and a smile from Leonard showing me that I was on the right track. He would always be pleased when I discovered a story that was ‘new to me’, but that he could elaborate on. On the rare occasion that I was able to slueth out new details, he was very pleased as well. He was always available to add insight or direction when a project began to slow down.

    Durring the final day of business at Memorabilia of San Jose, a steady stream of customers and friends came by to take a last look and purchase one final artifact. Sue Cucuzza was enlisted to handle the change box, and above the din of well wishers, Leonard would call out the price of various objects. My honor, was to take the torrent of phone calls coming into the shop. Message after message was taken that morning, while I sat behind HIS desk in the inner office.

    When the last of the customers had shuffled out the door, Leonard McKay, Bob Tower, Sue and myself all looked through the tiny windows out onto empty parking lot across St. John Street. The wind was blowing briskly, causing sheets of rain to fall and strike the pavement in waves. What could have been a sad moment (and it was to a certain degree), was at once enlivend by Leonard asking us to a lunch of Chinese food for ‘a job well done’.

    My studies haven’t ended, and with luck and determination I will finish a few of the endeavors that put a smile on my mentors face.

    I have many such fond rememberances, and possibly we can ask the good folks at San Jose Inside to keep a thread running for just such a purpose.

    Thank you,

    John E. Stolp

  4. Jack:
    It would be hoped that these stories, tales and rememberances could be sent on to History San Jose for their archives and a memory book that the The Pioneers would hope to have in the Paulson House for every visitor to see.

    Also, check with Tom about you speaking at the Memorial. The piece, the Seanchai, is something that needs wider distribution!

    Jerry

  5. I suspect there will be many interesting stories shared on Thursday at History Park.  I am hoping my work schedule will allow me to attend Leonard’s memorial. 

    Although I never met him, Leonard strikes me as a sociable historian who availed himself to the masses more than Clyde Arbuckle, who to me was always a mysterious name attached to just about every priceless historical artifact from San Jose’s past that I would see and covet in my younger days as a collector.

    I’ll miss Leonard’s posts here on SJI and as his understudy John has stated above, do hope that we will still enjoy posts of historical nature once in a while.  I’m pretty sure that’s what Leonard would have wanted.

  6. Jack, thanks for the wonderful tribute to Leonard.  As Mal Content noted above, your stories about him are as fascinating as the stories he used to tell.  Thanks again!

  7. Whenever one purchased postcards at the late Leonard’s business, you were sure to get a short story on Valley history. He would abandon you temporarily, returning with a smile and copies for himself- from the images you were buying from his inventory.  It was difficult for him to let go of something so meaningful, but the victory was seeing how enthusiastic the customer was!
    These fond memories add to tales when we’d bump into each other at the Santa Cruz paper show, share a few moments of short talk and stalk the aisles for more Valley history, lying in wait, in all those dealer boxes.  The postcard world affords one to make great connections. Leonard will be missed.

  8. Thanks Jack,
      This site is starting to feel like home!
      Hail Seanchai, Hail Seanchai, Hail Seanchai!

                The Village Black Smith

  9. Many’s the time Leonard and I tgried to figure out how we were related. The closest that I could come was that he was my step-father-in-law once removed. (whatever that means). Most often we gave up the attempt and just said, “neighbors.” I watched the house and fed the dog when he was on a trip, and he would come across the street 4 or 5 times a week for tea when he wasn’‘t. He alswayhs used to say, “Did I tell you about – – -.” He didn’t want to be guilty of boring or repeating.  My wife would let me tell him it was a repeat because she liked to hear the same stories again.
    Leonard – may God bless and hold you in the palm of his hand.
    your step-son-in-law, once removed, Neil

  10. I was fortunate enough to get to know and love Leonard very much, through his joyous recollection of a very significant time in San Jose history.  When he was President of the Rotary Club of San Jose, Leonard would repeatedly try to tell the membership about Grandma Bascom, a woman who had a rooming house for the first legislature in California. For some reason, the membership was not particularly interested in the story, but Leonard persisted.  At his “debunking” we did a skit, which included me as Grandma Bascom, in costume.  It wasn’t until the day following our debunking that Leonard asked his then wife Harriett who was that strange woman who played Grandma Bascom!  He was shocked to hear it was me.

    Leonard then developed a short dialogue between Grandma Bascom and himself as the “interviewer” based on some letters that Grandma Bascom left.  Leonard and I toured throughout the county with our Grandma Bascom program and had a ball for a couple of years doing it.  We were planning to resurect the show again, but I moved in early October to San Antonio, TX.  In my unpacking, on the day of Leonard’s death, I found my Grandma Bascom costume and wig…Leonard always did like me best when I was in “costume”!  I shall always cherish my many memories of the wonderful storyteller named Leonard McKay.