Every St. Patrick’s Day for 30 straight years, Pete Leary dressed as a leprechaun and paraded down Fayetteville Street in a pair of green and white stockings.
He was Irish, red-bearded and stood 5-foot-5, so call it an ethnic weakness.
As he grew older, Pete’s red beard turned white, and rather than dye it, he embraced an additional dress-up season, joining the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas – Raleigh’s St. Nick for hire.
Two weird hobbies. Just one man.
But in my book, here’s a third quirk that clinches Pete’s win for lovable eccentric of the year. He wrote a collection of oddball songs for acoustic guitar, which he yodeled through the mane on his face, offering tidbits of impish wisdom: “ A Sensitive New Age Cowboy.” “Talk Some Elvis To Me Baby.”
So however you choose to remember Pete, who died of a heart attack at age 74, do it with the verve and big-heartedness of a man too spunky for just one holiday, too colorful for a single stage.
“He was a part of my family’s world every year on St. Pat’s Day,” said Jean Travers of Apex. “Beginning with one son in my arms and one in the oven in 1994, we took pictures of Pete and my boys annually. As my kids got older, they drank with Pete at Tir Na Nog, and we all cried alligator tears when we heard of his passing.”
Pete died two days shy of Christmas, and there’s a memorial for him Sunday at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, his home away from parades and Yuletide chimneys. If you’ve attended a worship service at UUFR, you’ve likely heard Pete warbling to the congregation in a pair of red suspenders:
“ Everyone sometimes is driven to rage
the loss of our status or the missing sports page
or we’re stuck in traffic or nobody listens
but it’s hard to be mad when we’re singing ... ”
A printer by trade, Pete built a spiritual life around UU. In 1999, when Hurricane Floyd swamped its Shelter Neck Camp in Pender County, Pete took his songbook into churches and coffeehouses around the Southeast, raising $60,000 for repairs.
In 1998, he held a gathering in his front yard to mark the fourth anniversary of the clash between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. With his guitar, he led a group of refugees in the country’s national anthem, bringing tears to at least one man’s eyes.
“It’s similar to Ireland, in a sense,” Leary said of the African conflict, “and I can relate to that, having Irish heritage.”
But on St. Patrick’s Day, he channeled his ancestry with a pair of curly-toed shoes, charming toddlers with coin tricks.
“I’m on my third pair of shoes, my third hat,” he said in 2011, nearly three decades into the role. “You have to have a little bit of the brogue – an Irish brogue, you know – and you have to have a gift of gab.”
He morphed into Santa with the same single-mindedness. On his Web page, he created his own “Santa Oath” as a personal credo:
I shall be dedicated to hearing the secret dreams of both children and adults. I understand that the true and only gift I can give, as Santa, is myself. I acknowledge that some of the requests I will hear will be difficult and sad. I know in these difficulties there lies an opportunity to bring a spirit of warmth, understanding and compassion.
“He used to talk about being the only Santa in our group who could also be a credible leprechaun,” said Jac Grimes, a fellow Kriss Kringle. “He was probably one of four UU Santas in the country.”
He leaves behind a son, Jason, in Florida, who told me his father’s pride never interfered with his brand of absurdity.
“I remember going to yodeling contests with him,” Jason said.
Pete had the gift of lunacy mixed with tenderness, tools for a life well-lived.