In the company of (dead) presidents

While the mock Civil War troops camped outside the grand porch of a large house in Mentor, Ohio, on a chilly February day, a bearded man captured their attention.

"The president's here!" said the captain, as the figure of James A. Garfield made an impromptu check of the soldiers. The next day the story of the chance inspection was in the paper, and the dignified gentleman's telephone was ringing off the hook.

Thus began Ed Haney’s journey as a presidential re-enactor. It was quite fortuitous he grew that beard.

Haney has been portraying President Garfield for 25 years now. He is a living historian, and began his presidential journey as a favor to the curator of the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, the museum housed in the preserved home of the 20th US president. He studied up on the president, grew a beard, rented a costume and portrayed the assassinated leader for a fundraiser organized to help fix up the house Garfield lived in from 1876-1881.

Living historians are "dedicated to the preservation of history through correct presentations of life and the preservation of our country's landmarks, cemeteries, and battlefields," according to the National Society of Living Historians. They often participate in Revolutionary and Civil War reenactments or work in living museums such as Old Fort Niagara in New York or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Haney's fateful turn as Garfield developed into an interest he couldn't shake. "The more I started reading about him, the more I was fascinated by him," he said. Newly retired, Haney joined the museum in a more substantial way as a tour guide (in the guise of Garfield) and began collecting Garfield memorabilia. (His spare room is filled with Garfield mementos, including a 38-star US flag, the type that flew while Garfield was in office.)

Haney's enthusiasm for Garfield ultimately led him away from the museum to organize a troupe of like-minded re-enactors that call themselves We Made History.

Being a living historian can be a hobby or a career: Haney and his friends work as independent contractors, scheduling educational appearances at museums, schools and civic clubs. They earn money for their portrayals, but don't depend on their fees to make a living. While some living historians choose to recreate a persona based on their own personal family history or invent a character from the past, Haney's group chose very specific and recognizable figures from American history to bring to life.

Haney, as Garfield, often works in concert with Debbie Weinkamer, who portrays First Lady Lucretia Garfield. We Made History's husband and wife team John and Marion King portray Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln. Others in the group include Linda Laronge, who portrays Eleanor Roosevelt; Dale Liikala, who portrays William H. Taft; Donald Miller as Ulysses S. Grant and Robert Hodder as Theodore Roosevelt.

The troupe strives to educate the public about the lives of past presidential families. They take their characters seriously, often identifying deeply with the former president or First Lady's traits.

Lucretia Garfield "admitted that she struggled with raising children after having a college education. She called them a 'household of barbarians,' " Weinkamer said. "I can relate to that." Like Lucretia, Weinkamer said she feels more comfortable in a library than in a parlor holding soirees for politicians.

John King, a retired third-grade teacher, shares physical traits with President Lincoln. At 6'4", "I'm the same height as him. I have a mole on my cheek like his," he said. They share a love for the outdoors and being "hand-on," King said.

King's wife, Marion, finds it amazing how she favors Mary Todd Lincoln's appearance, but sees their similarities as more than skin-deep. Both women have had health problems (Mary Todd had migraines, arthritis and possibly diabetes while Marion has survived breast cancer), had family ties to Kentucky and were strong supporters of civil rights.

Laronge, it turns out, shares a passion for aviation with Eleanor Roosevelt. "We both flew airplanes," she said. And since Roosevelt was often in the public eye in the age of television, Laronge was able to accurately mimic her mannerisms.  "I can talk like her," she said. "It really brings the character to life."

The troupe are constantly researching their characters. Their enthusiasm for the people they portray and the course of American history is obvious.

"Early on when I was [portraying President Lincoln], I overstayed my welcome a few times," said King. "It's really difficult to do a five minute or three minute presentation about Lincoln," he said, "You want to inundate [the audience] with your knowledge."

And there are times when these first-person historians play to a tough crowd, Weinkamer said. At a recent battlefield dedication in Middlecreek, Kentucky, Haney and Weinkamer were set to perform a program where Mr. and Mrs. Garfield read their letters to each other.

"We were there with Civil War re-enactors and they sort of shunned us because we weren't one hundred percent authentic," she said, admitting that maybe she didn't have a precisely historic outfit for Lucretia. "There are people who breathe, eat and sleep this, and you can get carried away," she said. "I've talked to people who feel like they've been there in a former life."

The kinds of re-enactors Haney and Weinkamer encountered in Kentucky are, "very, very serious about what they do, as we are, too," Haney said. "They get the clothing right, down to the underwear," and strive to live the way soldiers did when they do encampments, he said. "I'm just in awe," Haney said. "I'm not a re-enactor as they are, but I admire that they bring history back, too."

"They are essentially trying to go back in history and live as their forefathers," King said of Civil War re-enactors. "They'll go to reenactments representing particular divisions their relatives were actually in," he said, an appeal he understands. He's found family letters documenting that both his great-grandfathers were encamped in the same town during the war. "Is there a chance they could have said 'Hi' and 'Do you want a cup of coffee?'" King wondered.

As Abraham Lincoln, King is unique within the group. His is the only character that is also widely represented within living historian circles. By contrast, as far as they know, We Made History includes the only re-enactor of President Taft in the country. At a festival last year, King met a Daniel Boone re-enactor who pointed out he was one of only two in the country, "but that there are at least 200 Lincolns."

There's even a national Association of Lincoln Presenters, which holds an annual Lincoln convention.

But this year's presidential election has the troupe fielding questions that speculate on more than just the life stories of their favorite American leaders.

For example, how would their characters vote in this election?

Laronge is often asked about how Eleanor Roosevelt would react to the country's current state of affairs.

"Eleanor was a huge champion of civil rights," Laronge said. Having an African American man in the Oval Office "would have been important to her," Laronge said. "She would be thrilled."

Ultimately, "it's really hard for us to say," how their inspirations would vote, Weinkamer said. "We don't know how they would act in modern times."

They can, however, articulate the lessons these men and women contributed to the country's political history.

Garfield, the last of the Log Cabin Republicans, "was a fair man and he would want to listen to both sides before he made a judgment, no matter what," Haney said. "My personal opinion, if he hadn't been assassinated, he would have been one of our greats."

Lincoln's great lesson, according to King, is that anyone can become president. "Lincoln had less than one year of formal education," King said. "His father was illiterate and felt if the weather was good enough, Lincoln should be splitting logs and doing chores." His unquenchable desire to learn made all things possible, said the teacher.