Birthday Q&A with Abraham Lincoln -- or as close as we could get
February is to Abraham Lincoln impersonators what July is to ice cream men, Sunday is to preachers and 2 a.m. is to phone-sex operators.
And Littleton's John Voehl is no exception. He started the month by helping Governor Bill Ritter kick off Colorado's Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration on February 2. Today, on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, he's at a banquet in Cheyenne, Wyoming, his only non-Colorado appearance. On February 20, he'll be back in Denver at Johnson Elementary School, and on the 21st, he'll be at the Commerce City library. To see Voehl's complete schedule, visit his website.
We caught up with him in between presentations to ask about his chosen side gig and attempt to stump him with our probing, mind-blowing Lincoln questions.
Westword (Melanie Asmar): How did you become a Lincoln presenter?
John Voehl: In the summer of 1996, I had a friend of mine at work who needed a Lincoln character for a humorous skit for his Cub Scout campout. He was doing it based on the movie Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. I owed the fellow a favor. So I rented a Lincoln costume and I trimmed my beard Lincoln-style. And I was surprised by how much I looked like him. The scouts and their parents were drawn to me as Lincoln. They wanted to touch me and they wanted their pictures with me, and they wanted to know if the beard was real. And this one child said to me, "I thought you were dead."
WW: You said you were surprised by how much you look like him. Are you a dead ringer?
JV: I'm actually four inches too short to be Lincoln. He was meticulously honest in everything he did, so he said he was six-foot-four, nearly, because he was six-foot-three-and three-fourths. Facially, I resemble Lincoln. If I am wearing shorts and sandals in the summer and I have my beard Lincoln-style, I look like Lincoln. I don't need to put on a top hat or anything else.
WW: You had a glass-plate photo a la Matthew Brady taken of yourself as Lincoln. How much time and money have you spent trying to become Lincoln?
JV: A lot of what I read, I check out of the library, so that's not a direct out-of-pocket expense. Although I have thousands of dollars of income each year from Lincoln activities, most years I just break even because I have spent that much money traveling to presentations.
WW: Have you met other Lincolns in your travels? Is there an annual conference?
JV: I'm a member of the Association of Lincoln Presenters, which is a national organization of people that do what I do. And I have been to two of their conventions. I went to the one last year in Alton, Illinois, and there were seventy Lincolns there in costume.
WW: How many costumes do you have?
JV: I just have one. But my wife, who sometimes portrays Mary Lincoln, has a closet of dresses.
WW: Do you have a full-time job? Or are you Abe all the time?
JV: I do have a full-time job other than being Lincoln. I work for an aerospace company, and I handle large sub-contracts. I tell people it's my job to help spend their tax money.
WW: On your website, you talk about the "legendary" question-and-answer sessions after your presentations. Tell me about one.
JV: In the Colorado curriculum, students study the Civil War in fifth grade and eighth grade. So I regularly go to schools. Every year, I provide a presentation that's a half-hour, 45 minutes long. And then the students have questions they have prepared. And several times, I have had a Q&A go two and a half hours. Sometimes with eighth-graders, they're trying to ask the question I can't answer.
WW: Let me try. I'll start off easy. What's Lincoln's birthday?
JV: February 12, 1809. He was born in a log cabin. It was a Sunday morning. The log cabin had a dirt floor. He was born into a rather poor family.
WW: What was his mother's maiden name?
JV: Hanks. And the famous actor Tom Hanks claims to be a descendant of that family.
WW: What was his favorite song?
JV: As an adult, even prior to the Civil War, notably his favorite song was probably the song "Dixie," which was appropriated by the South as their sort of theme song. And as the war was ending and a band came to serenade him at the White House, he asked them if they would please play the song "Dixie." He said it was always one of his favorite songs.
WW: What was his shoe size?
JV: In the measurements of his day, it was 12 1/2 wide. But their shoe measurement techniques weren't the same as ours. So in our measurements, it would be a size 14.
WW: Okay, Voehl. You're good. Now, I think I have the correct spelling of your name, but I have one more question. How old are you?
JV: On February 12, as Lincoln, I will be 200 years old. And on the 14th, Valentine's Day, I will be a mere 57.