SIMPLY LINCOLN: Teacher portrays Abe Lincoln to rave reviews
EIGHT SCORE and zero years ago, Abraham Lincoln officially became the 16th president of the United States. Yes, March 4 in 2021 was the 160th anniversary of Lincoln's inauguration in 1861 — while presidential inaugurations today take place in January, in those days they occurred in March.
What would it have been like to hear Lincoln speak? To be present when he delivered his famous speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address — the first line in this story is a nod to that iconic speech, which begins as follows: "Four score and seven years ago..."
Howard Wright has a ready answer to this question — attend one of his Simply Lincoln presentations. A Canton resident since 1986, Wright has been performing as Lincoln since 2005.
“I joke that I’ll always be a newcomer since I wasn’t born here,” he says. “I lived in Avon for three years before moving to Canton."
Wright, 64, is a lifetime member of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, an organization dedicated to the serious interpretation of the legendary president. He is a middle school science teacher and department head at Renbrook School in West Hartford. Wright has spent his entire career at Renbrook, beginning in 1980, and met his wife Betsy there. She is a Simsbury native, and they have been married for 34 years. Their son and daughter are both in their 20s.
Wright's family has strong ties to the Farmington Valley.
His parents lived in Simsbury for over 20 years before moving to Seabury in Bloomfield. He has four brothers, and he’s the second youngest. For many years, four of the five brothers lived in Simsbury, Granby and Canton — "so family get-togethers were easy and commonplace," he says. One brother, Steve Wright, was a longtime teacher at The Master's School in West Simsbury.
From 2008-10, Howard Wright was appointed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to serve as co-chair on the Connecticut Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. From 2011-15, he was the exclusive Lincoln presenter for the Connecticut Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.
The government's COVID interruption has halted his Simply Lincoln performances for the time being, but as vaccinations occur and society reopens, Wright looks forward to the light at the end of the tunnel and the resumption of his dramatic work.
In one of Lincoln's letters — from Aug. 6, 1860 — he wrote: "Good news, from a reliable source, is always welcome." Numerous people who have seen his riveting presidential portrayal will welcome his post-COVID presentations as good news indeed.
In the following wide-ranging Q&A with Today Magazine, Wright discusses his Simply Lincoln work in-depth, explains his appreciation for Lincoln's life and legacy, and much more:
When was the first time you portrayed Abraham Lincoln?
I teach middle school science at Renbrook School, an independent school in West Hartford for 3-year-olds through grade 8. I first portrayed President Lincoln in front of Renbrook School’s 8th-grade class in May 2005. They were studying the Civil War in their history class and I wanted to try out my performance in front of a “friendly audience.” It went so well that some teachers requested I repeat it that Friday after school. And lo and behold, a couple dozen stayed to watch it!
I received much praise and encouragement to continue portraying Lincoln. The scientist in me asked, “OK, how close can I come to accurately portraying him, really?” I pored over a 300-page book that printed every known photograph of Lincoln in order to study the details of his clothing.
With the indispensable help of a fellow re-enactor, John Callahan, I was coached as to where to purchase authentic period clothing. I assembled the classic trappings of Abraham Lincoln: a black wool double-breasted frock coat, black wool pants, black vest with the exact number of buttons, a white bloused shirt with real bone buttons, a diamond-point tie that I hand-tie for every performance, leather boots, and of course the stove-pipe hat.
I went through three versions of the hat until I purchased exactly what I wanted: a beaver fur hat made by the renowned Dirty Billy’s Hats from Gettysburg, PA — it fit the exact dimensions of Lincoln’s famed hats. I also purchased a gold pocket watch and had a goldsmith shape the clasp to match the one Lincoln wore during much of his presidency. I wear contact lenses during the performances and use period-correct reading glasses when I, as “Lincoln,” read letters or speeches.
Ultimately, I wanted my speaking voice to better approximate Lincoln’s. Numerous sources confirmed that Lincoln spoke slowly, with a high tenor voice, in a Kentucky accent. I learned, through audiotapes, how to speak with a Kentucky accent, and over many months I honed my speaking style by practicing in the shower and on long walks with our dog. And all through this period of time I was booked for more presentations and performances, so I was literally learning as I was performing.
Is that the same year that you formally began your Simply Lincoln work?
Yes, 2005. The title of my performance at Renbrook was “Simply Lincoln.” I liked it enough that I use it as my masthead online and website domain, and it’s part of my email address: email@example.com
Why did you decide to portray Lincoln?
I love the poetic style of much of the English language. I love collecting quotes. And Lincoln’s words, in speeches and letters, are so terrifically rich. I am about his height — yielding an inch to the great man, who was 6-foot-4 — and have sported a beard since 1981. All of that combined to generate the idea that I could put together a performance where I read and recite Lincoln’s words from selected letters, speeches and miscellaneous but important quotes. I was also relieved to discover that I could memorize a fair amount of material for a performance.
Most fulfilling aspect of your Simply Lincoln work?
There’s not just one. I started out trying to be the best Lincoln presenter in Connecticut, and I believe I have achieved that. I’ve worked hard to give folks my best impression of who Lincoln was, both as a person and as a leader. I have received praise from general audiences, Civil War re-enactors (a discerning bunch!), members of the Connecticut Civil War Round Table, the staff at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, and the Chicago committee that organized events for the three-day commissioning of the USS Illinois submarine in Groton, CT. Further, I was the “go-to Lincoln” for Connecticut’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission from 2011-15.
Through it all, however, the most fulfilling part of my portrayal is to tell the audience the story of how, as Lincoln described himself before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, “a boy brought up in the woods and knowing very little of this world, should be drifted into the very apex of this great event.” He had impeccable integrity, unrivaled eloquence, great courage and conviction that what he was doing was right — and he beseeched Americans to more fully embrace the concept of liberty for all.
“Good news, from a reliable source, is always welcome” — Abraham Lincoln
In other words, when given the opportunity, he helped move those in the North to first restrict and then abolish slavery in this country.
On a related note, he was assassinated because he supported the notion that more people should participate by voting in our democracy; he was killed because he was in favor of a provision in Louisiana’s new state constitution that the state legislature could allow newly-freed slave men to vote in elections. He was in favor of expanding the number of people who could vote, which stands in contrast to a number of states today, particularly in the South, that want to go the other way.
The biggest challenge of your Simply Lincoln work, and how you meet it?
There have been three big challenges: two are ongoing challenges, and the third one I’ve met and have overcome it.
The first ongoing challenge is that I knew nothing, really, about the life of Abraham Lincoln. Nothing, except the general, superficial stuff. I didn’t know where to turn. After reading a couple of books on his quotes, I learned that there is an eight-volume set of everything that Lincoln wrote or delivered in a speech: “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” — edited by Roy P. Basler.
I spent months reading everything and made careful notes when I came upon a letter or speech with a memorable and/or profound passage. I didn’t want to read anyone else’s interpretation of what Lincoln said; I wanted to read and assess his words myself.
Another challenge was learning about his life. I had to be selective as to what I read because, first of all, I wanted to read accurate information. The internet is not the place to learn about Lincoln because so many people want to literally put words into his mouth. I also had to be selective because there are so many books about Lincoln – only Jesus and William Shakespeare have more books written about them. There are so many books about Lincoln to read!
The third challenge was that I had to be comfortable portraying Abraham Lincoln. Who was I to play such a great, heroic, intelligent, eloquent and courageous man? It took me two years of just reciting his words during performances before I had the nerve to go “off script” and do a first-person portrayal. Embodying my interpretation of his personality and soul took a lot of research, study and synthesis to arrive at a fairly good representation of what he could have been like.
Whenever I go to a Civil War encampment or re-enactment “in the field,” Abraham Lincoln is a very easy person for me to portray: He was very down-to-earth, he was funny, and he was so appreciative of any kindness shown to him.
What do you appreciate most about Lincoln and his legacy?
Michael Burlingame, an internationally renowned Lincoln scholar, summed it up so well in the closing pages of his biography, “Abraham Lincoln: A Life.”
My poor attempt to summarize Lincoln’s legacy is to say that Lincoln rose to greatness despite so many things that made his rise unlikely — grinding poverty as a youth, a complicated and at times unhappy marriage, bouts of depression, and failures in business and political elections. Yet he had moral clarity, an unmatched ability to use his words for the cause of right, and a stubborn resolve to keep the United States together despite setbacks and military and political defeats — and to not lose faith in the face of treachery from both sides of the conflict.
His leadership qualities, eloquent speeches, pithy comments, and humorous stories and jokes have secured his place as one of the greatest of all greats in our country.
Do you see Lincoln as the best president in U.S. history? Why or why not?
That’s a hard question to answer. People ask me who was greater, Washington or Lincoln? I always answer Washington. Washington’s presence helped create the United States of America; as one biographer wrote, Washington was the country’s “Indispensable Man.” Lincoln’s lasting greatness was that he kept the Union together in the mid-19th century. These two men best illustrate how fortunate our country has been when it’s needed the right kind of leadership during a crisis.
Part of Lincoln’s greatness was that he was the first president to, in his words, “touch the issue of slavery.” In helping to get the 13th amendment ratified, which abolished slavery, he brought the nation closer to the ultimate goal of true equality for all. The stain and cruelty of racial injustice continues to plague us to this day and we still have a long way to go.
Please rank in order your top 3-5 presidents in U.S. history.
1 — George Washington
His character and leadership style allowed the framers of the U.S. Constitution to envision him as the one person who could serve as the singular head of the nation, but who would not act like a king. From the French and Indian War until his death, he was on and off the world stage for about 40 years.
2 — Abraham Lincoln
Besides what I’ve written elsewhere, he believed that government could be a force for good and that government should help the people when they could not help themselves. He was able to overcome his faults and accept himself for who he was, and looked benevolently on the people of both sides of the Great War of the Rebellion.
3 — Franklin Delano Roosevelt
He led the country through the trials of the Great Depression and World War II.
Favorite performance anecdote:
I’ve always enjoyed addressing the Union troops during re-enactments, for I deliver Lincoln’s actual words to those assembled in front of me. Lincoln’s messages to the troops often invoked the love of the Union, the justness of the cause, and the appreciation of those who were willing to leave their homes to enlist, and to those who had died fighting for the Union.
A couple of years ago I was at a re-enactment in Framingham, MA, and I spied a company of soldiers drilling an hour before the event opened to the public at 10 a.m. I walked over and asked the captain for permission to speak to the soldiers. He agreed, introduced me to the troops, and I read my prepared remarks. The captain led the soldiers to cheer three times, “Huzzah!”
Later that afternoon, the captain sought me out and, “breaking period” — re-enactor code for dropping the re-enactor role — he said that my speech really helped remind the soldiers why they were there. He noticed they had an extra spring in their step, an increased sense of purpose, and were more focused and dramatic during the battle engagements. I thanked the captain for his thoughtfulness in telling me! This experience is an example of the inspirational power of Abraham Lincoln’s words.
A future favorite performance anecdote could include one of my ultimate goals — to perform at the White House, Ford’s Theater or President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home. I was one of 17 Lincoln portrayers to be profiled at President Lincoln’s Cottage in 2010, so I’m making some progress.
You’ve taught science at Renbrook School since 1980 — how are the disciplines of science and history connected and interrelated?
I’m always motivated by the answers to two questions: “Why are things the way they are?” and “Why were things that way back then?” Both science and history answer these questions in different ways.
Thus, when I read historical nonfiction or learn more about how life on Earth functions, I always try to extract and remember the answers to those two questions. Since Galileo’s time, the scientific method has enabled humankind to make great leaps in progress, such as fighting diseases. Our country’s enormous death toll from the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a lesson in what happens when government officials do not follow scientific facts and sound public health policies. People who do not want to wear masks because they mistakenly believe it infringes on their liberty might as well proclaim that they don’t believe in germ theory.
A stark lesson in history as to what happens when a government ignores scientific facts (more people are likely to suffer and die) is found in the 1930s Soviet Union. Stalin supported a patently wrong agricultural plan and millions of his countrymen ended up dying of starvation. Communist China adopted the same plan in the 1950s and widespread starvation occurred there, too.
Your work experience before Renbrook:
A signature work experience was as a seasonal interpretive guide at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT, for four years. I worked with Rich Krueger, the park geologist and director for 33 years. Rich is one of the four most impressive people I’ve ever met: a scientist, artist, educator, botanist and craftsman, to name most of his traits. I learned so much about dinosaurs and the Mesozoic Era, the fascinating geologic history of our exceptional state, and life on Earth. Oh, and how state government doesn’t always want to do things the right way, or the most intellectually sound way.
What do you value most about the Farmington Valley?
I value the natural beauty of the Valley. Much of that appreciation is due to how easy it is to read the landscape in terms of geology, which was a focus of a Zoom seminar I gave on April 8 as part of the lecture series inspired by the 2019 Paleo-Indian site found on the Farmington River in Avon. The seminar focused on how easy it is to count the seven rock layers of the Connecticut Valley when you travel east from the Route 44/Route 177 intersection in Canton to Bishops Corner in West Hartford. It’s inspiring to see the beauty of the Farmington Valley’s section of the Metacomet Ridge — namely Avon Mountain and Talcott Mountain.
What constructive change would you like to see in the Valley?
Future development along Route 44 should focus on converting vacant storefronts into new business ventures. For instance, the concept of blasting away a section of the intrusive igneous ridge near the old La Trattoria Restaurant, potentially affecting local groundwater quality and a Superfund site, doesn’t seem worth the risk in order to create level ground for, ironically in my opinion, a sustainable energy business. And literally blowing up a section of natural beauty on the eastern boundary of Canton seems contrary to the town’s long-standing and long-professed affection for the natural world.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Hackensack, New Jersey in 1956, and lived in Rutherford, NJ for the first seven years of life. I spent my formative years (1963-77) growing up in Needham, MA, a suburb right outside Boston.
I was lucky to be in the Boston area during that time because many sports legends were in their prime: Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Carl Yastrzemski were the biggest stars. My dad built a skating rink in the backyard, and my four brothers and friends spent many hours living the dream of skating for the Boston Bruins.
A classmate and boyhood friend of mine was Charlie Baker, now governor of Massachusetts. We played together after school, went to the same church, our mothers were good friends, and he taught me how to throw a baseball. We played together on two Little League teams. When I see TV clips of him, I still recognize the Charlie I once knew — an earnest, sincere fellow who’s quick with a laugh.
— Bruce Deckert • Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
+ Related Story — Grateful for journey as state’s top Abe Lincoln re-enactor
Howard Wright contact info
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org — Website: http://www.simplylincoln.com
• This article first appeared as the cover story in the March edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
• See the February edition of Today Magazine (page 11) for a story on a Valley connection to John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln in 1865
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