Pantless Percy and the Good Life

by Samuel Isaac Robinson

        Forty three years ago Hamilton’s best-loved eccentric died. The Globe and Mail wrote that he was “as well known as any civic dignitary.” Once, when he threatened to abandon Hamilton and walk to Vancouver, a tug-of-war ensued between the mayors of the two cities. Both wanted him.

Percy Leggett was an institution in Hamilton, and a living monument to stubborn self-determination. From 1956 to 1965, he walked wintry streets in his distinctive and unchanging outfit of baggy, revealing shorts without underwear, black rubber boots without socks, and a flimsy jacket. Every school kid knew him. The Spectator reported his words and deeds on a regular basis. He had the mayor’s ear, whatever his complaint.

Like all visionaries, he had questioned and resolved, with elegant simplicity, the existential contradictions years before the rest of us had taken note of them. From the 1940’s onward, Percy Leggett questioned the foods we eat, our obsessive work habits, and the nature of the good and fulfilling life. He wanted to ponder the eternal questions in solitary peace, but his eccentricity only attracted attention. He constantly displayed an unintended flair for the theatrical.

The conflict between the Midtown Seniors’ Centre and Percy Leggett was a focus for most of his philosophies on The Good Life. The Midtown was a drop-in centre for senior citizens. Percy Leggett had visited the club daily for four years. He played sacred songs on the piano, sang old-time favourites, and danced joyfully. But in May of 1964, a group of ladies at the centre raised vocal objections to the revealing nature of Percy Leggett’s shorts. He was told by the centre’s director that he’d have to wear more modest garb or be banned forever.

“I refuse,” said Percy. “I will not dress to conform. I will expose this trend in the old people’s clubs. It’s a trend that says you must conform – or get out. I live right. Clothes confine. Let the air get at you, massage you. It stops you getting tender. No socks. My body breathes."

He went straight to the Mayor’s office to protest and he threatened to leave Hamilton’s stuffy attitudes behind and walk to Vancouver. Mayor Victor Copps quickly announced that he was ready to fight to keep long pants off Percy Leggett. After all, you just don’t go around covering up civic monuments. But before Vic Copps could go to battle on behalf of sartorial indecency, word of Percy Leggett had spread across the nation. Mayor Bill Rathie of Vancouver announced that he would personally welcome Percy Leggett to his city “with or without pants.”

Percy Leggett was far from being an exhibitionist and clowning eccentric. His claim that he’d strangle in a collar and tie was as much literal as metaphorical. He had lived the straight-laced, upright life. And he had lived it successfully. He found it unbearable. Several decades before the popular concern with stress, nutrition, physical fitness, and environmentalism, Leggett had diligently, and with some distress, developed a life devoted to a simple enjoyment of exercise, health, quiet study, and a passive relationship to the environment. He also worked hard at self-sufficiency, though he wasn’t always successful.

Born in London, England in 1892, the son of a carriage maker to King Edward VII, Percy Leggett came to Canada in 1911. he worked for the Grand Trunk Railway for seven years, rising to the rank of locomotive foreman. He then turned to plumbing and eventually became a business executive. The Second World War seems to have triggered in him a repugnance for technology and a wary discomfort with the pressures of mass society. “I got rid of that uniform – pinstriped suit and white shirt – ran away from the human race and let my face be (free) from the razor.” He had become a vegetarian under the influence of Bernard MacFadden, a popular and wildly successful health faddist in the early decades of the century. In 1946 Leggett left Montreal for the northern woods and began his apprenticeship in the unencumbered life of the hermit. It was far from easy, and for many years he periodically landed in trouble with the authorities.

In many ways he was not a successful hermit. He seems to have had a gregarious quality that always brought him back to town. Like many idealists he hated society but had an affection for people. In the mid to late ‘40s, Percy lived around Kirkland Lake, Englehart and Charlton. Generally he built a flimsy shack in the woods and lived on a meagre diet of raw grains, nuts, and potatoes. But he seems to have been unmotivated, or perhaps unskilled, in pioneer ways. He never learned real self-sufficiency. One winter he stayed in his shack for a full month without getting out of bed, feeding himself with dried peas and grain. He believed that to move around would use up more energy and make him eat more of the food he was rationing until spring. In 1949, he collapsed from malnutrition while trying out a diet of potatoes and oatmeal. But most winters he was lured into the nearest town by the dream of a warm, secure jail cell. With a mixture of temperance, idealism and self-preservation, he’d hurl a brick through a liquor store window. “Breaking the windows was my protest against the liquor traffic, though I also wanted to get food and keep warm. They treated me very well at Haileybury jail.” When no brick was sent through the liquor store window one year, the police sought him out fearing he’d frozen to death.

He seems to have been full of wonder, and like a child easily distracted from practical matters. His shacks, according to one visitor, were “as full of holes as gorgonzola cheese and just as fragrant.” A wood stove fought valiantly against the north wind. “When it’s 40 below outside, it’s 20 below in here,” he said. During the summers, he worked for the CNR and CPR on their northern lines. Yet his shack was without even a tar paper cover. While he planned a garden that would give him real independence, he never in fact put any of his land under cultivation.

While living in Montreal, he had sung tenor in a church choir. He always kept a bundle of sheet music near at hand. During his life in the woods, passersby on the road were often startled to hear his clear voice raised in melodious praise as he sang an old hymn from deep in the forest.

Eventually, he drifted south spending one winter at Brantford Jail Farm, before making his triumphant entry into Hamilton in 1956. His nine years in Hamilton were happy in most respects. He perfected his simple diet of wheat hearts, oatmeal, raw fruit and vegetables. His days began at 5 a.m. with exercises in his rented room. After a brisk walk, he’d lift weights at the YMCA, run a mile around the indoor track, and float in the pool for more than an hour. Eventually, he’d arrive at the library’s main branch where he read most of the day. In his travels around Hamilton, he was accompanied by a gaggle of children, and adults leaned out of car windows to greet him. But he knew that he was considered crazy because of his flimsy clothing, his unkempt appearance, and his disdain for grinding work. “But they’re the crazy ones. And their lives get crazier all the time … they worship money … they rush …” Then  with a sigh, he added, “I would have been happier in ancient Greece.” He was keenly aware of the weaknesses inherent in huge, highly organized social structures. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was favourite reading for him, and he often drew parallels between ancient civilizations and the contemporary world. During the evening, Percy visited the Midtown Seniors’ Centre. Aside from playing inspiring hymns on the piano, he’d hold forth on The Good Life, on opera, on the news of the day, on job schemes for the unemployed. His life was very full and he knew that he’d found a secret that few shared. He often said that he knew he’d live to be at least a hundred. “I’ve found the way to ‘ealth and ‘appiness,” he’d say in a Cockney accent. “Only thing’ll kill me before I’m a hundred will be a car. Almost as bad as people, no sense at all.”

But all the good exercises in the world, a healthy diet, serious reading, and hymn singing won’t stand up to the rejection of the human community. Even an idealistic and failed hermit seems to need a community’s warmth. Percy Leggett’s rejection by the Midtown Seniors’ Centre seemed to take the wind out of his sails. It threw him back on his belief that he could live outside the human circle. A group of business people, The Hamilton Men’s and Boy’s Wear Guild, with Mayor Copps’ intervention, persuaded Percy to don a new set of shorts. But he vowed never to return to the seniors’ centre. He began to visit the Wesley Centre, and he demonstrated against the city’s snow clearing inadequacies by clearing a full city block in one hour. But within the year, Percy Leggett announced he was leaving Hamilton, heading for the northern woods and The Good Life.

In ten days he walked a hundred miles to north of Orillia. He slept during the day and walked in the cool of the night, pushing his few possessions along in a wheeled shopping cart. On the night of June 10, 1965, Percy Leggett was struck by a car and killed. The driver, who had been drinking, was convicted of careless driving and fined $35.

Mayor Copps declared that the City of Hamilton would pay for a proper burial in Hamilton, if relatives were not located. Percy Leggett had become a civic institution. Two brothers and a nephew were found around Montreal. Percy was buried, in his shorts, in Orillia. Two of my teenage chums drove up to Orillia for the funeral. In a park before the burial they met a nine-year-old boy who’d never been to a funeral before and to whom Percy had given a nickel for an ice cream cone a few days before. The three of them, along with his three relatives, saw Percy buried. Eight bouquets of flowers adorned the casket, one from the Hamilton Downtown Association, one from family, and the rest from Hamilton friends.

Two years before his death, Percy Leggatt sat on a curb in Hamilton after almost being run over by a bus. He composed this epitaph for himself:

Here I am, interred in this place,

Now twice removed from the human race,

I beat the germs, I beat the cold,

I’m immune to disease, the new, the old.

But alas I’ve lost, I’ve become a crumper,

Not to a virus, but a ruddy car bumper.

     [Distillate © HA&L + Samuel Isaac Robinson  |  {from the Greek bios} -- the course of a life.]