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Lincoln presenters visit Vandalia

VANDALIA - It's been said that, when he had time for a good meal, Abraham Lincoln could be seen dining on a meal of fricasseed chicken, scalloped oysters and election cake.

On Saturday though, it was all about pizza.

After a group photo was taken on the steps of the historic Vandalia Statehouse, about 15 Abes, many with Mary Todd Lincolns at their sides, enjoyed pizza, salad and breadsticks at Giuseppe's Pizza in downtown Vandalia.

"I would really like some lemonade," one Abe said to the waitress.

"Sorry, we only have soda," she said. Abe agreed to a Pepsi.

The Abes and Mary Todds were part of a contingent of about 60 members of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, an organization that began in 1990 as a way of connecting people who impersonate Lincoln for various events. More than 100 Abes are members today.

Randy Duncan, 42, of Carlinville often was told growing up that he resembled Lincoln. But he never thought about being a Lincoln himself.

"Some friends were part of a festival and asked me if I would dress up as a clown and pass out balloons. I thought a 6-foot, 4-inch clown didn't make sense."

But soon after that event, Duncan saw a picture of a group of Lincoln presenters from one of their annual meetings in Springfield.

"I looked at myself in the mirror and covered up my mustache with my finger, and thought, 'Hey, I look just as good as they do.' And now I've been doing this for seven years."

Duncan has tried to learn as much about Lincoln as he can. When you dress up like Abe, he says, you take on an obligation.

"Everyone knows Lincoln. Or at least there are some preconceived notions about him. It's different from dressing up as any other character."

Pete Raymond, 69, of Wooster, Ohio, a presenter for four years, says he gets stares both in and out of character. His license plate even reads "ITS ABE.""It's a little eerie," he said. "I've traveled every place Lincoln has traveled. You portray Lincoln and you get to walk on floors that Lincoln walked on and see things others don't get to see. That makes you appreciate the part you are playing."

He especially enjoys presentations at schools.

"You can learn so much more from a presenter than from a book. Here's someone from the 1800s telling you this, and children are just in awe."

Saturday afternoon, the presenters were part of a parade through downtown Vandalia - dozens of Abes and Mary Todds, plus even one George Washington. Many had their pictures taken afterwards with a life-sized Lincoln statue across from the historical Vandalia Statehouse, which served as the capitol of Illinois from 1836 to 1839. They then went to the Old State Cemetery, where they were entertained by locals portraying famous deceased residents.

Phil Funkenbusch of Petersburg was on hand as a cemetery walk spectator, even though he usually organizes them through the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

Funkenbusch said he began his day at Lincoln's New Salem State Historic Site near Petersburg, where he saw busloads of people coming in to learn about Lincoln's former village.

"What is it that intrigues us about the past?" he said. "To see those at New Salem this morning, to seeing all of these people in Vandalia, it just makes you think. And to see these many Lincolns here in this town."

Raymond, however, thinks his presentations make young people think the most.

"At every presentation, I give out pennies. I tell students when they get in a situation where they think they can't do something, to pull out their penny and look at Abe's profile and to remember just this one thing: If Abe could do it, I can do it."

But perhaps a little girl who saw Raymond at a school presentation is the biggest reason he dons the top hat and black suit. Later, she saw Raymond in public and pointed him out to her grandmother.

"See, Grandma," the girl said, "I told you he was still alive."

Brenda Protz can be reached through the metro desk at 788-1519.

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