These area historians have that Oval Office look
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
"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
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
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
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.
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.
Age: About Eleanor's age when she was in the White
House. I won't say what year during FDR's 4½ terms.
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
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
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
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
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