Actor portrays legendary Hoosier poet in living lesson

Known as the “Children’s Poet,” author James Whitcomb Riley is forever linked to a Hoosier upbringing and the state’s history.

Terre Haute actor Charles Adams brought the famous poet to life for a group of Smith, Parkside and Schmitt fourth-grade elementary students recently, to encourage them to learn more about Indiana history and one of its most famous storytellers.

Fourth grade is when Indiana students learn about Indiana history, said Lisa Webster, a fourth-grade teacher at Schmitt.

But rather than teach students about Riley from a textbook, Candy Carr, a fourth-grade teacher at Parkside, wanted to try something else. She commissioned Adams to portray the poet after watching one of his performances in Illinois. Students and Smith and Schmitt were then invited to share in the presentation.

Adams gave three performances Oct. 7, which would have been Riley’s 167th birthday.

Adams, who said he knew very little about Riley prior to agreeing to the performances, found that his life and Riley’s shared a few similarities — they were both Hoosiers, loved reading and shared similar taste in books, enjoyed the outdoors and were involved in advertising.

Adams said both he and Riley had a chance to meet their heroes — Riley’s was fellow poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Adams’ was character actor Ian McNeice.

But for the performances in Columbus, Adams said he didn’t plan to interpret Riley to the letter of history.

Instead, he wanted to make the experience an “interactive, accessible, fun loving representation of the man that is true to his spirit and the twinkle he had in his eye.”

Webster and Susan Baute, a fourth-grade teacher at Smith Elementary, said Adams achieved his goal.

“When we returned to class, the first question I received was, ‘Can we look for some more poems to act out?’, said Baute. “They appreciated Mr. Adams’ energy, enthusiasm and the ways he involved them in the presentation.”

Riley, who was known as both the “Hoosier Poet” and “Children’s Poet” wrote hundreds of poems before he died in 1916. His poems, such as “The Raggedy Man,” “Little Orphant Annie” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin’”, became famous for their dialect and traditional style.

Webster said the students particularly loved Adams’ rendition of “The Raggedy Man,” and his animated portrayal as he read the poetry.

Students not only witnessed poetry being brought to life, but learned a great deal about the poet too, Webster said.

Adams is currently working on multiple projects, including touring with Theatre 7 for the play “Here in the Universe,” has multiple films awaiting release and will be filming another movie project from mid-October through November.