BIRTHDAY BOND: Riley Birthday Club honors those born Oct. 7


Riley Boyhood Home & Museum hostesses Gwen Betor and Mary Greenan marvel over the dozens of entries in the Riley Birthday Club binder, which honors those who share an Oct. 7 birthday with the late poet laureate James Whitcomb Riley.

GREENFIELD — When Danville resident Cathleen Segvich stopped by to tour the Riley Boyhood Home & Museum last week, she had no idea she’d be walking out with a birthday card connecting her to the famed “Hoosier poet.”

The history buff just happens to share a birthday with James Whitcomb Riley — Oct. 7 — which makes her an automatic member of the Riley Birthday Club.

Riley home hostesses Gwen Betor and Mary Greenan happened upon a birthday club binder stuffed inside a podium a few years ago while cleaning the museum. As they leafed through the pages they couldn’t believe what they saw — dozens of members’ names with Oct. 7 birthdays dating back as far as 1901.

The oldest entry belonged to Pearl Pickett, a Sheridan woman whose name was written on a yellowed piece of paper preserved within a plastic page protector.

“When we found the binder and all the entries we couldn’t believe it,” said Betor, who has been a Riley hostess for the past 20 years.

She and her fellow hostesses are always excited to welcome a new member into the club, so long as they were born on Oct. 7.

Segvich just happened to mention that her birthday was coming up after she toured the home and museum last week.

“When she told us it was Oct. 7 we got super excited. She was wondering what all the fuss was about,” said Greenan.

Segvich signed her name to the binder and accepted a certificate proclaiming her a proud club member.

Cathleen Segvich signs the Riley Birthday Club binder at the Riley Boyhood Home & Museum in Greenfield on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. The Danville woman shares a birthday with James Whitcomb Riley, who was born Oct. 7, 1849.

Greg Roland, inspector and project manager for the City of Greenfield’s engineering department, is also part of the club.

Roland, a past member of the Riley Old Home Society and past president of the Hancock County Historical Society, shares his birthday with Riley, the “Hoosier Poet,” who was born in 1849.

Even though Riley passed away in 1916, Betor said it’s essential to keep celebrating his life and literary works and the impact he made as Greenfield’s most famous native son.

“He was a great poet, among other things. A lot of people don’t know that Riley Children’s Hospital was named after him,” she said.

The Riley Festival honors the poet laureate with a four-day festival each fall, with a rotating theme based on his poems.

The Riley Boyhood Home & Museum hosts a birthday for him on the final day of the festival each year. This year’s party will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 9 at ‘Lizabuth Ann’s Kitchen in the rear of the museum.

The celebration will include cake served by the Riley Festival queen and court and poetry readings by local Riley impersonator Jon Burroughs, who is typically decked out in Riley’s signature three-piece suit and black top hat. The Hancock County Community Choir will also perform.

All are welcome, said Betor, with special honors reserved for those born on Oct. 7.

This year marks the 173rd anniversary of Riley’s birth, which took place in a log cabin that was later converted into the kitchen area of the two-story home his father built at 250 W. Main St.

It was in that house that Riley spent most of his childhood, until the home was sold in 1864 when he was around 15.

His upbringing in the home inspired a large part of Riley’s poetry, according to the Indiana Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology.

Little Orphant Annie was based upon an orphan named Mary Alice Smith who stayed with the Rileys during the Civil War. According to IDHPA, “she helped raise James and frequently told mesmerizing stories about ghosts and fairies to keep him entertained.”

After earning national notoriety and financial success as a writer, Riley purchased his childhood home in 1893. In 1935 the City of Greenfield purchased the house, which has served as a museum ever since.