Call it a tale of two Kentucky Lincolns: One Lincoln impersonator is 80, the other is 50.
Jim Sayre, 80, has been portraying Abraham Lincoln for so long that when he talks about the events of the president’s life, he speaks in the first person.
It’s “I,” not “he,” to Sayre: “I, too, am a Kentuckian,” he says into the telephone, his sonorous voice sounding as if the Great Emancipator has just stepped from the grave in mid-speech.
Sayre, retired from Lawrenceburg Transfer truckload freight carrier, has been marked as a Lincoln since he grew a beard in 1982, moving folks to observe that he sure looked like the craggy-faced president.
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He later won a Lincoln lookalike contest in a rented costume: “I thought my fame and fortune had come and gone in one day,” Sayre said.
It didn’t. Sayre has been doing Lincoln shows for 33 years. Since 2007, he has been the designated Abraham Lincoln for Kentucky Chautauqua, sponsored by the Kentucky Humanities Council.
The council, based in Lexington, is an independent, nonprofit corporation affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities. It sponsors the Kentucky Chautauqua and speakers bureau as well as issuing grants for humanities programs and hosting the Kentucky Book Fair.
Kentucky Chautauqua allows schools and community groups to invite Kentucky characters from “Harland ‘Colonel’ Sanders” to “Adolph Rupp” to speak to their groups for a minimal fee. The presentations, given in costume but with a minimum of props, can be mesmerizing.
Sayre loves being Abraham Lincoln: Check out the front and back license plates on his white Mercury, both which read “Its Abe.” He has gone through five black top hats in the course of being Lincoln.
Speaking about the Gettysburg Address moves him each time he tackles it: The Battle of Gettysburg, on July 1-3, 1863, in Pennsylvania, recorded more than 50,000 casualties in three days. Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address at the November 1863 dedication of Soldier’s National Cemetery for Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg.
Each of the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg ranks in the top 15 bloodiest battles of the Civil War, but the battle at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, had more soldiers, with 185,000, versus Gettysburg’s 160,000.
In 2009, Sayre portrayed Lincoln at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. He never thought he’d even see a show there, much less be on stage.
Sayre has performed in 99 counties, at 195 Kentucky schools, before nearly 66,000 people and once traveled 9,000 miles to portray Lincoln in the Northern Mariana Islands.
But Sayre is slowing down in his 80s — the real Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, at 56 — and a new actor is replacing him for many Kentucky Chautauqua appearances: Greg Waltermire of Lexington, the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Lexington.
“I am a history buff, and that period of history was so formative,” Waltermire said. “The United States has never been the same since the Lincoln presidency.”
He will make his first appearance as the new Lincoln on Aug. 16 at Centre College.
“It’s a good kind of nervous, not a paralyzing nervous, but a motivating kind of nervousness,” Waltermire said.
Waltermire has two different monologues in his repertoire — one is aimed at school-age students, while the other is for an adult audience. The monologue for adults focuses on a 2 1/2 -year period of Lincoln’s first term.
“It is amazing to think of the emotional toll that would take on somebody,” Waltermire said.
Lincoln’s rise is particularly noteworthy because of his humble beginnings, Waltermire said. Lincoln was born in 1809 in a log cabin on his father’s Sinking Spring Farm in what is today LaRue County.
“When the deck was so stacked against him, he rose to the heights,” Waltermire said.