With little more than charisma and force of will, Paul LeMay managed to turn an improbable idea into a Hartford phenomenon, bringing tens of thousands to the city for an annual fiddle contest.
LeMay died Friday of heart failure from complications of other illnesses. He was 65.
He started the New England Fiddle Contest in 1974, the same year he founded the grassroots arts organization, Peace Train Foundation. The first year featured a few dozen amateur fiddlers at Bushnell Park and an audience of about 1,000. Within a few years, the event would attract tens of thousands to the city; at the height of its popularity, 70,000 came for the fiddle contest.
"He really wanted Hartford to be a viable and happy place to be," said Cheryl Daniels, his partner of 30 years. "People would be able to see each other and be with each other and he would bring people together."
"He was just a sweet, jolly guy — I just loved the guy," said his friend, Joel Aronie. "It was during the Vietnam war and there were so many negative things going on. I thought he brought joy to the community."
LeMay's rise to offbeat Hartford celebrity started with an old rickety school bus that he bought with a $1,500 donation and proceeds from door-to-door honey sales. He fixed the bus up to resemble an old caboose, called it the Peace Train and declared that he would drive elderly folks to events, kids to ball games and otherwise provide transportation to those who didn't have it. Before he even worked out certain details, like bringing the bus up to code, he started planning a new bus for musical and theatrical performances.
"Everybody thinks I'm nuts," he told the Hartford Courant at the time. "But the ultimate goal is to enjoy life and help people any way you can."
Besides the fiddle contest, he organized free outdoor movies and helped bring major acts such as Leon Redbone and Marcel Marceau to Hartford.
Friends said Monday that his success came from thinking big without paying attention to possible obstacles.
"When he entered a room, you knew Paul was in the room," said Ed McKeon. "He had a charisma that I think he knew he had and was able to use. He was able to bring to people together."
LeMay's quirky idea for a fiddle contest eventually grew to a $300,000 operation. By the 1980s it had a board of directors with LeMay as its unlikely executive director. At this point, his throw-caution-to-the-wind approach didn't always go smoothly. A disagreement over whether to fly a hot air balloon over the 1981 fiddle contest (LeMay wanted it, the board didn't) led to his dismissal.
The contest fizzled out a few years after. It had been revived by the late 1990s with LeMay involved again. Though it hasn't attracted the same size of audience that it did in the 1970s, Daniels said LeMay was particularly proud that it has lasted. This past summer, it was held at its new venue in Manchester.
"He was kind of like the sun and there were a lot of people who rotated around his orbits," said his friend Joan Walden. "I think his goal was to foster good stuff, and he certainly was good at that."
A gathering to celebrate LeMay's life will be held Friday from 5 to 8 p.m. at Angelo's on Main Rockledge, 289 S. Main St., West Hartford. Donations may be made to the New England Fiddle Contest, 5 Forest Hills Lane, West Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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