WARRENSBURG — At first blush, life for Pat Shannon Leonard seems a forever heavenly day spent sipping tea in the perennial shade of huge ancient trees in an orchid-rimmed gazebo at her Warrensburg home.
But there is more. Leonard's story is richer, more resilient, more exotic.
Leonard is a poet and photographer who loved Lake George and the surrounding mountains long before she wrote her first published poems.
“I love Lake George so much,” she said during an interview at her home in early July. “Every time I drive by there, I tear up. It was the best years of our life. We lived there from 1966 to 1982. The last two years we just spent summers there.”
Leonard’s story is best envisioned in deeply textured shades of burnt sienna, raw umber and a French cerulean blue: A photographer’s cruise through Costa Rica a few years back, several trips to Ireland’s County Donegal, skiing in Montana at 70.
It is a life splashed with sways of frothy unbleached titanium white, Bohemian Forest green and Pompeiian red.
And perhaps most importantly, it is a life that she has breathed in deeply during her 95 years of learning and loving.
And as her artist’s eye captures the beauty of a skeletal Adirondack winter etched into an early night sky, she continues to slice out a magical corner of life shared with others in words and images.
"When you can take a picture early in the morning or late in the evening you always get the best light," she said.
out of impermeable
(from “Adirondack Haiku,” Pat Shannon Leonard)
“The way I started writing poetry, in 1979, my husband and I took a course in parapsychology. We were doing a lot with hypnosis and self-hypnosis, and it was through that,” Leonard said. “One day, I was just walking up from the dock and I saw this really tiny forget-me-not in the sandy beach between some rocks where the tide comes in and goes out all the time.”
Leonard picked the flower, taking it back to her home to paint it.
“Then this poem came into my mind. And I wrote it down. All these poems started coming out of my head,” she said. "And that was where my muse came from.”
Inspired early in life by nature, at 17, Leonard wrote what she thought was a poem.
“I had graduated from high school. It was a very foggy day and this poem came to me that day. So I sent it to a teacher, a mentor of mine, and I waited and waited to hear back from her," she said, recounting the story. "She wrote me a letter."
The teacher never called what she wrote a poem.
"She wrote, 'I can tell from your letter you are drinking in the beauty of the mountains,'" she said. "She never called it a poem, and I thought ‘I guess it’s not a poem.’"
Devastated, she tore it up.
"I was 17, I wrote my next poem when I was 55," she said. “That was a terrible thing to do to a young person, and she had no idea what she was doing, of course."
Leonard's years of living on the lake were spent with her husband, Bill Leonard, a Fort Edward native who owned The William Leonard Insurance Agency on Route 9 for many years.
"We met at a beach party. He was a Navy pilot cadet at USC (University of Southern California) and I was a sophomore at Immaculate Heart College," she said.
The meeting took place during World War II, and because Bill got transferred to a school on the East Coast, they were forced to correspond in letters and telegrams for 3 1/2 years.
"When I was a senior in college, he got his Navy wings and he sent me the little sweetheart wings. I was so shocked. We hadn’t seen each other in 3 1/2 years," she said. "So that was 1945 in August, just before the war ended. He called me from San Francisco to come up and see him ... I knew I was in love with him then."
Still, the parish priest in Fort Edward where they were married told them it would never last.
"It lasted 61 years," she said.
The two had three children together, two boys and a girl, raising all but their oldest in their Lake George home.
in the snowy woods
there is a massive stillness
alone on snowshoes
(from "Adirondack Haiku")
Moving south in the 1980s, they made a new home on South Carolina's Seabreeze Island, a barrier island near Charleston.
"When we went to South Carolina, all the flora, fauna and wildlife inspired all these poems," Leonard said about her first book of published poetry, "Laughing Gulls, Songs of a Sea Island."
“Every single poem in that book is something that came off the top of my head. I just wrote it down," she said. "The poem would be given to me and I would write it down. And that went on for a long time; I wish it still did.”
After Bill died, Leonard moved in 2008 to Warrensburg to be near her daughter, Mary.
"My daughter went to visit a friend in Montana and stayed for 17 years," she said. "Just before I was 65, I had been living in the south for 10 years. I was missing skiing so much and thought, ‘I’m going to be 65; if I’m ever going to ski, I better do it now.' So I went out to Montana and went skiing with Mary. And I went out for five winters. But then Mary moved back to Lake George."
These days, Leonard and Mary and Mary's Brittany Spaniel, Lilly Louise Stargazer, spend long hours together.
"I have a special relationship with my daughter. We are each other's best friend and she comes and cooks dinner for me every night," she said. "We spend hours together every day."
Last year, a health problem kept Leonard down a bit and she could no longer golf.
"At 93, I felt fabulous. At 94, I went through 13 months of being a very old lady," she said. "All last year I kept saying, 'Oh, to be 93 again.'"
This April, she started feeling better, and she's back to golfing nine holes twice a week.
Leonard talks fondly of her Warrensburg home, pointing out the flowers in the garden Mary has planted, but her heart remains in Lake George.
“I love Lake George, it’s home to me,” she said.
Leonard will be signing books from 3 to 6 p.m. on Friday at the Riverfront Arts Festival in the Farmers Market on River Street in Warrensburg.