Anderson County man entertains and informs thousands as Abraham Lincoln

jbrammer@herald-leader.comDecember 25, 2013 

LAWRENCEBURG — In the driveway of a small, red-brick house on winding Alton Station Road in rural Anderson County sits a 2007 Lincoln Town Car. Its license plate reads "ITS-ABE."

A nearby farm truck on the property has a plate that reads "ITS-ABE2."

Inside the house stirs the owner of the vehicles, Jim Sayre, 78.

Take a quick look at him, and the inscriptions on the license plates suddenly make sense.

Jim Sayre looks like Abraham Lincoln. He has the dark hair, soft eyes, a lanky, bony frame, and, of course, the beard.

For more than 30 years, Sayre has entertained and informed tens of thousands by portraying this country's 16th, and some say, best president.

Audiences for his spot-on presentation have ranged from excited schoolchildren across the nation to former then-lady Laura Bush.

His travels as the Kentucky native he calls Mr. Lincoln have taken him to places as diverse as the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean to the Kennedy Center in Washington to Lincoln's birthplace in a log cabin in Hodgenville.

"Not bad for an old farm boy," he said.

Sometimes it's hard to separate Sayre from the role he relishes.

"Here's my wife," says the bearded Sayre with a quick grin. "Her name is Mary, too."

Sayre is one of the most popular of the 22 Kentucky Chautauqua actors who provide 28 presentations of famous people in Kentucky. The historic characters range from 19th-century statesman Henry Clay of Lexington to Maysville singer Rosemary Cloon ey.

Since its inception in 1992, Kentucky Chautauqua has brought to life nearly 70 people from Kentucky's past, famous and unknown. In front of to community organizations and at schools, the presenters deliver historically accurate dramatizations of Kentuckians who made a difference.

The program is part of the Lexington-based Kentucky Humanities Council, an independent, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C. It is supported by the National Endowment and by private contributions. It is not a state agency and receives no state funds.

The program charges $200 for a nonprofit sponsor of a presentation, $175 for a school and $450 for a for-profit sponsor. A Chautauqua presenter is paid $350 for each presentation. Sponsors requesting a presenter must pay for overnight accommodations.

Hired presenters go through "a pretty regimented schedule" before going public, said Kathleen Pool, associate director of the humanities council.

"They spend a year working on their script, and then we provide each with a drama consultant, costume consultant and a scholar," she said.

After leaving the program, presenters must wait a year before they can raise money for their acts.

Sayre, who sometimes signs off on phone messages as "Mr. Lincoln," has held a contract with Kentucky Chautauqua since 2007, although he has performed the role of Lincoln for many years.

With the Chautauqua, Sayre has delivered more than 350 Lincoln presentations to about 48,450 people, Pool said. Each presentation lasts 30 to 45 minutes.

"When we put Lincoln on our list of presenters, we had a lot of people apply and audition for the role. But we said yes to Jim Sayre and are glad we did," she said.

Sayre was born in Anderson County "down by the Kentucky River" in 1935, one of seven children of John Sayre, who worked in a mill that made thread, and Violet Sayre, a stay-at-home mother who was a registered nurse.

"I started my schooling in a one-room school. Like Lincoln," said Sayre.

He graduating from Anderson County High School in 1954. He and his wife, Mary, were married in 1956.

"She's from Fayette County. Just like Mary Todd Lincoln," he said. They have two adult sons, James and David.

Sayre worked for Lawrenceburg Transfer, a trucking company, from age 19 until his retirement in December 2001.

He was drafted into the Army in 1957. After being released in 1959, he grew a beard.

"It was more a protest against military regulations," he said. "Over the years, I played around with it, sometimes keeping the mutton chops, maybe only the mustache. In the late 1970s, I grew and kept this beard I have now."

People told Sayre he looked like Lincoln. "I would say, 'Oh, no. He was an ugly cuss.'"

In October 1983 in Hodgenville, Sayre came in third out of several contestants in a Lincoln look-alike contest. He won $25 and got another $25 for the best beard.

He realized there was money to be made in playing the Great Emancipator.

"Some people saw me in that contest or heard about it and asked me if I would speak to their church group or school. I rented a costume and was on my way as a Lincoln presenter," he said.

Sayre's role-playing blossomed in 1986 when he won a national contest for presidential look-alikes in West Branch, Iowa, home of President Herbert Hoover. He has been busy every year since performing as Lincoln, joining the Association of Lincoln Presenters in 1990.

His travels as a Lincoln presenter have taken him to 20 states, "many times to Gettysburg."

He said his greatest honor in the role was to perform for several Medal of Honor recipients a few years ago at the Kennedy Center.

"I will play him only in places where I think Lincoln would go," he said. "You will never see me as Lincoln in a bar."

To get ready for his role, Sayre said, all he has to do is "put on the costume."

Asked whether he was an expert on Lincoln, Sayre smiled modestly and said, "I've read extensively about him. Just say I'm well-advised."

It is hard sometimes for him to get away from the role.

"Mary and I were at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville a few years ago when singer George Jones saw me in the audience wearing a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt, and he told the crowd he was happy to see President Lincoln in the audience," Sayre said. "He stopped his show and asked me to stand up. We talked about three minutes."

Mary Sayre said she didn't mind when her husband grew a beard and started playing Lincoln.

"I'm proud of him and always have been supportive," she said.

Jim Sayre said he had no idea how much longer he would present Lincoln.

"I'm getting old and feeling it," he said. "Broke my hip, and a foot from a military injury is bothering me. But this is enjoyment. Not much gets better."

Jack Brammer: (502) 227-1198. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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