How one man brings Abe Lincoln to life

J.P. Wammack is one of hundreds of people who put on public presentations of the 16th president at schools, libraries, and other venues.

doug kim/special to the christian science monitor
Students from Columbus Elementary School in Glendale, Calif.
doug kim/special to the christian science monitor
J.P. Wammack gives a talk and answers questions from rapt fifth- graders at the Columbus Elementary School in Glendale, Calif. One student wants to know: 'How are you still alive?'

Abraham Lincoln orders fish and chips. We're at the Wild Thyme restaurant here, out to dinner with the Civil War Round Table of San Gabriel Valley, and J.P. Wammack – in full Lincoln regalia – listens attentively to his countrymen as he sips a Coke.

There's talk of Lincoln biographies, of California's role in the Civil War (yes, it had one), and most animatedly of the imminent birth of Mr. Wammack's grandson. A server rushes in to greet Wammack-as-Lincoln: She's homeschooling her son, and the boy admires Lincoln so much that at one point he wanted the 16th president tattooed on his back. Wammack smiles and nods. The real Lincoln may have faced the Civil War, but I doubt he ever imagined his visage framed by a boy's scapulae. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the relative of J.P. Wammack who was about to be born.]

Wammack is a Lincoln presenter – one of about 315 members of the Association of Lincoln Presenters (ALP) who labor to, as the group's motto goes, "rouse the Lincoln in you all." This weekend, the ALP (which includes 53 Mary Todds and a smattering of other historic personages) will touch down in Alton, Ill., site of the final Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858, to swap tips on everything from lapel microphones to beaver-felt hats.

Wammack will be there, too. But on this February night, he's having dinner at Wild Thyme as a precursor to his talk at the nearby Allendale Branch Library. He's winding down an epic month, having given more than 25 talks. In the small, flat-roofed library, 12 men and women gather in the young-adult section. They're knitting, whispering, and looking around for Lincoln, restless among CliffsNotes, a globe, and Hardy Boys paperbacks.

After a quick auction of Lincoln-related books and a rundown of upcoming events (Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, will stop by on May 22), Wammack steps before the crowd. It's a convivial group, and as Wammack warms them up with some Lincoln trivia, his voice is patient and smooth. He tells of his work as a surveyor, his foundering general store, his failed run for the Illinois legislature, and his decision to become a lawyer. When he quotes Lincoln, he doffs his hat and holds it at arm's length: "Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection," he says.

A cellphone rings in the audience, and Wammack pauses, then asks, "What is that object?" Moments later, another cellphone emits a plaintive low-battery beep. It's one of many anachronisms that Wammack confronts – another being Lincoln's narration of his own death ("And what happened to you, Abe?" Wammack asks himself out loud). As he concludes, the audience claps delightedly. Murmurs of "That's wonderful!" and "Terrific!" float through the crowd.

• • •

I hadn't expected to find Abraham Lincoln in the tangle of southern California sprawl. New England, maybe; the Midwest, sure. But not in Pasadena, famous for the Rose Bowl and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Yet the more time I spend with Wammack, who lives in nearby Glendale, the more he becomes Lincoln. I hear his voice and think, Oh, there's Lincoln again; I see his face and recognize it not as Wammack, but as Lincoln himself.

No wonder. Wammack has been doing his top-hat routine for seven years now, and the coattails in his family are figurative as well as literal: His father, H.M. Wammack, was a Lincoln presenter for 15 years.

After being widowed at 54, H.M. Wammack memorized poems "to keep his mind off tragedy," J.P. says. Soon, he moved on to Lincoln's speeches. Someone asked him to dress as Lincoln and speak at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. He commissioned a Lincoln-style coat and tie, and found a hat that J.P. still wears. He changed his license plate to HM ABE, and after years of driving Cadillacs, he bought – what else? – a Lincoln Continental. When father and son – both history buffs, both insurance salesmen, and a tennis duo – drove around, H.M. Wammack practiced his speeches in the car.

Then in February 2001, health problems prevented H.M. Wammack from giving his annual talk at Forest Lawn. J.P. Wammack filled in. He gave the Gettysburg address three times that day, with Lincoln's words tucked into his top hat just in case – a pragmatic nod to the 16th president, who kept his own speeches in his hat. Between addresses, children swarmed Wammack in the foyer. "They treated me like a celebrity," he recalls. "Their mothers took my picture. I was hooked."

Wammack now seems accustomed to the faux familiarity of celebrity. Strangers make Lincoln jokes everywhere we go. "You're supposed to be splitting logs, not moving tables!" one fan calls out at Wild Thyme.

But for Lincoln presenters, the appeal isn't just in a gleeful crowd. It's about the man himself – his humble roots, his singular character, his pragmatic eloquence. Before reciting the Gettysburg Address for second-graders, Wammack often tells them that the next 272 words are among the most important in history. The first 20 times he gave Lincoln's Farewell Address, Wammack nearly cried.

Still, the Lincoln thespians find a mixed reception among Lincoln scholars in academe. While many biographers welcome the knowledge of Lincoln the presenters share, some worry the line between homage and caricature blurs if Lincoln's words become lost in top hats and coattails. "The fact that [Lincoln] was tall and had a beard – these are relatively surface things about him," says William Lee Miller, a political ethicist at the University of Virginia and author of "Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography."

Wammack, for his part, refuses to address groups that "just want a Lincoln to stand around and smile." He and other ALP members are passionate about their own study of Lincoln and his personal narrative. He "was the ultimate American self-made man," says Dean Dorrell, an ALP vice president. "He led himself to the peak of what he could become, and he brought the country along with him."

• • •

Columbus Elementary School sits in a tidy Glendale neighborhood of modest homes, near two freeways. American flags poke out of flower pots. A sign outside the school's front office proclaims "honesty" as February's character theme.

Four-score-and-more fifth-graders crowd around blue metal picnic tables, and when Wammack strides across the playground, they gasp and shriek: "He has a beard!" "He has a hat!" "He's a man!"

The energy on the patio is different from the previous night's talk – less scholarly sophistication, more volume and verve. When Wammack recalls chopping down trees with an ax when he was 8 years old, there are murmurs of "That's cool!" When he describes battlefields "where fathers fought against sons, where brothers fought against brothers," there are exhalations of "Whoa."

But the biggest response comes toward the end. "This is the story of how I became the first president who was assassinated," Wammack begins – and the boys, in particular, hiss out a collective, "Yesssss." Several pump their fists.

Not all ALP presenters will talk in detail about that fateful day at Ford's Theater, telling students it's too painful to discuss. But Wammack does – to the fifth-graders' delight.

Still, this isn't an easy crowd: When I ask young Arada Gholian what he thinks, he leans over and confides, "The real mustache is a little longer." But by the end of the talk, he's been won over. "It was so good, very good!" he effuses.

Vanuhi Khdryan admires Lincoln's career trajectory. "He tried so many jobs and he found a great job for him," she says.

The children swarm him after his talk, defying their teachers and the bell. Their questions are familiar, but Wammack relishes the routine. "Lincoln came up with these great things to say, but he only got to say them one time," he tells me. "I get to do them over and over again."

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