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Presidential posers! These area historians have that Oval Office look

By Sarah Crump, The Plain Dealer

February 13, 2010, 10:00AM

 When 6-foot-4-inch John King grew a beard, people noticed he looked like a guy they'd seen before -- in their wallets.

Add a stovepipe hat and a black waistcoat, and King looks an awful lot like Abe Lincoln. The teacher from Ashtabula has been portraying the 16th president for 25 years.

King is one of a few locals who call themselves living historians. They portray a host of presidents and first ladies at schools and proudly ride floats in Fourth of July parades. They not only try their best to look and talk like executive officeholders and their wives, they are experts on their subjects. Once in a while though, there's a question they can't answer.

"We call them stumpers," said Linda Laronge of Fairport Harbor, who frequently wears a military-style dress and carries a stuffed dog named Fala to "be" Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II.

President James A. Garfield doesn't exactly have a household face, but Ed Haney of Mentor, who learned all about Garfield when he was an interpreter at Lawnfield, the president's Mentor home, does look like him. (His beard is real, too.)  He sees himself as an educator about the president who had served slightly more than six months when he died after being shot in a Washington, D.C., train station.

"When I mention Garfield outside of northeastern Ohio, people say, 'Oh, yeah, the cat," said Haney, who has portrayed Garfield for 21 years -- sometimes when Garfield's descendants are in the audience.

The reenactors have to stay in character, Haney said. When handed a microphone, he plays dumb. "I say, I don't know what it is, they just told me to talk into it."

When it's showtime, and the president is on the podium, Haney takes on his Garfield persona as if it's 1881. "I get rid of Ed, and I'm James."

And all these presidential portrayers have their own stories to tell. Here's a glimpse into their lives as White House alter-egos.

BOB HODDER/Theodore Roosevelt.

Age 65, Euclid (Roosevelt died at 60).

Retired English and history teacher. (While teaching, Hodder never dressed as Roosevelt.)

Where he'll be on Presidents Day: Portraying Roosevelt on a train and at an event at Plains (Ga.) High School on behalf of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site.

Costume: Prescription pince-nez glasses, a Victorian morning coat, sometimes a cowboy hat. (TR owned ranches in Dakota Territory.) Hodder parts his hair down the middle for the Teddy look. His toothy grin and boisterous laugh recall the Square Deal president. He also hands out teddy bear stickers.

Funniest incident: You have to think on your feet as a living historian. One time at a Chagrin Falls church presentation, a man asked, "Did you ever cheat on your wife?"

I puffed out my chest, looked down at him and said, "Of course not. I'm a Republican!"

What few people know: Roosevelt was blind in his left eye as a result of a boxing match. He was sparring in the White House with a young man who hit him. He never told the man he lost his eyesight because he didn't want him to feel guilty.

JOHN KING/Abraham Lincoln.

Age 65, Ashtabula.

Retired elementary school teacher, now a substitute.

First performance: For my third-grade students at Colebrook Elementary School in the Grand Valley School District. It took me less than 10 minutes to share everything I knew about Lincoln. Now if you get me going on him, I can talk for hours.

Few know that: Lincoln's law office in Springfield, Ill., was on the third floor of a warehouse, right above a federal courtroom on the second floor.  There was a trap door that Lincoln would lift up a crack, place a book under, and leave a small opening to the courtroom below. He was able to lie on the floor and observe the proceedings of the highest court in the state. When I visited there, I stretched out on the floor, too!

Funny incident: Several years ago I gave a presentation to a second-grade class. The teacher called two weeks later to tell me that as the class was discussing the events at Ford's Theatre, one of the students was almost in tears.  He raised his hand and said, "You mean that nice man that was here was shot and killed?" A living history lesson can really touch the audience.

Have you ever driven a Lincoln? No, but I may be Lincoln's distant relative.


ED HANEY/James A. Garfield.

Like James Garfield, Haney lives in Mentor.

Age? Haney hedges: "I'm old enough to be James, but he was only 49 years and 10 months when he died."

What few know: Garfield, the last president to be born in a log cabin, was the first left-handed president. He could write both Greek and Latin.

How he achieves the Garfield look: A little Just for Men, and I'm constantly shaping the beard.

Funny incident: I first started doing Garfield at his birthday celebration at Lawnfield. All I had to do was greet people at the door and say, 'How do you do? I'm James A. Garfield. Welcome to my home.'" One lady was so flustered she didn't know what to do, so she curtsied. I took her hand and said, 'Madam, I'm a president, not royalty. You don't have to curtsy.' "


CRAIG SCHERMER/ Franklin Pierce, Florence Harding, Mary Todd Lincoln, Lucretia Garfield, Caroline Harrison, Helen Taft, Eleanor Roosevelt and Grace Coolidge.

Age 62, Cleveland Heights.

Retail associate.

Funny incident: The very first time I performed (as Florence Harding) in a church in Cleveland Heights, they gave me a men's room to change in. A man walked in just as I was putting my hat on.  He said, "Excuse me, ma'am, but you have the wrong room!" I replied, "No, sir, you have the wrong room."

What few know: Mary Lincoln was a one-woman bureau for finding jobs for African-Americans and for women. Lucretia Garfield taught school in Cleveland. Caroline Harrison was the first first lady to give a public speech. Helen Taft rode a surfboard in Hawaii. Florence Harding was the first first lady to vote.

Similarities between you and a first lady: Mrs. Coolidge taught at a school for the deaf. I have been hard of hearing all my life and learned lip-reading early on.

What do you do about foundation garments? Many of the dresses still have stays in the bodices. I do not remove them. They give me a sense of the bearing and manner of the age. I suck in my breath, stand very, very straight and remember Eleanor Roosevelt's advice to future first ladies: "Sit in the back and don't get too fat."


LINDA LARONGE/Eleanor Roosevelt.

Fairport Harbor.

Age: About Eleanor's age when she was in the White House. I won't say what year during FDR's 4 terms.

Retail associate.

The easiest thing about dressing like Eleanor: She didn't wear makeup. I just slap a wig on.

How do you talk like Eleanor? I listen over and over to a PBS documentary that has some actual footage of her talking. I have that upper New York State accent down.

How many people think Eleanor was married to Teddy, not FDR? Surprisingly quite a few. Last year, a young newspaper reporter wrote a story. He had me married to Teddy all the way through it.

Have you ever dreamed as Eleanor? No, but I've dreamed as me being Eleanor. I had a nightmare about not being able to find my notes.

What few know: Eleanor hated having Secret Service men all around her, so she carried a gun instead -- and she was a pretty good shot. Because she was a big civil rights activist, the Ku Klux Klan had a $25,000 bounty on her head.


DEBORAH WEINKAMER/Lucretia Garfield.

Age 55; like Lucretia, she lives in Mentor.


Funny incident: People love Lucretia's clothes. (My sister-in-law is a fabulous seamstress!) An older lady hugged me and her hat caught in my wig. Reality was about to set in when my dear husband -- also named James, like the president -- disconnected us.

Nicest compliment you've had as Mrs. Garfield: When Ed Haney (President Garfield) and I do presentations together, people ask if we're married in real life. Then we know they've bought into our program.

How you became Lucretia: Ed Haney asked me. We were both interpreters at Lawnfield, so I knew a lot about Lucretia already. Ed said that people always asked him where Mrs. Garfield was. I was aghast when he suggested it. Now I know more about her family's genealogy than I do about my own.

What few know: Lucretia had planned to redecorate the White House as Jackie Kennedy would later do, but she never got to. Instead, she came home to Lawnfield and put on a library addition with a vault for Garfield's papers (and the 1,200 letters they exchanged). She created a country estate at Lawnfield with a windmill and a carriage house, and then she built a winter home in South Pasadena, Calif. She was very hands-on architecturally.


DALE LIIKALA/William Howard Taft.

Age 53 (same as Taft when he was president), Mentor.

Free-lance graphic designer and volunteer for the National Ski Patrol.

Monday's event at Yours Truly will be his first appearance as Taft.

Where you find your costumes: Used and/or discontinued tux clothing articles have become important pieces of my presidential wardrobe and can be attained at a low cost. I recently bought a used tuxedo jacket for $30.

What few know: WHT is the only president who also served as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. He is one of only two presidents buried at Arlington National Cemetery [John F. Kennedy is the other]. He was the first president to be driven by automobile to his inauguration.

Similarities between you and Taft: We are very similar in size: approximately 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds. WHT was born in 1857. I was born in 1957. Taft was also a very athletic individual who enjoyed golf, horseback riding and baseball. I am also athletic, with skiing and bicycling being my favorite sports.


CAROL STARRE-KMIECIK/Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolley Madison.

Age 55, Lakewood.

Has 250 engagements a year. Also portrays Elizabeth Bayley Seton, the first American saint; TV commentator Dorothy Fuldheim and humanitarian Clara Barton, among others.

Comment you're tired of hearing: When I portray Dolley Madison, people tell me they're glad to know that she did more than bake cupcakes.

Funny incident: I include some shocking information in my Jackie show. One time I was doing Jackie at the McKinley Museum in Canton. The director told me she was disappointed that Jackie's son-in-law Ed Schlossberg wasn't there to see my show. He had been in the week before. I said, "I'm sure glad he wasn't here this week."

What few know: Jackie was a chain smoker. She smoked several packs a day. She would turn down teas and luncheons when she was asked to speak. She didn't want to miss her cigarettes. Dolley opened up the White House to the public. It was called the Presidential Palace back then. People lined up around the block.

We Made History- a group of living historical re-enactors who are more than impersonators of historical figures-they are serious portrayers of U.S. Presidents and First Ladies

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