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Accidental career bears a lifetime of memories

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Sayre authors book of 31 years of impersonating Lincoln

By Shelley Spillman

It started out with Jim Sayre growing out his beard after completing active duty in the Army in 1959 and grew to be a rewarding career impersonating America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln.

He chronicles memories, travels and people he encountered during his 31-year career in his book “Memories of the Great Pretender.”

“A lot of people always said he looks like Lincoln,” said his wife, Mary Sayre.

A friend encouraged him to enter in a Lincoln look alike contest in 1983. Sayre decided it might be fun and gave it a try. With little information about the contest, he rented a $50 costume and showed up at Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville, where the contest was held.

He placed first in the beard competition, earning a $25 prize. He also placed third in the overall look-alike contest, earning another $25 prize. Sayre figured he broke even on the costume rental, and he didn’t think much of it until the phone calls came rolling in from churches, schools and parades looking for a Lincoln impersonator. Just by word of mouth, Sayre was open for business.

In order to play to part, Sayre felt he had to look the part. It became necessary to have a costume made for him instead of constantly renting a suit. He purchased hair dye to cover his graying hair and shoe inserts to give him the 6 feet, four inch Lincoln stature.

He researched extensively on Lincoln. He started with “Abraham Lincoln” by Carl Sandburg, and now he has a small Lincoln library at his home with more than 200 books. He said his favorite is “Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald.

Sayre said he actually has a lot in common with Lincoln.

“Lincoln was born in Kentucky; I was born in Kentucky. Lincoln walked to school;I walked to school. Lincoln attended a one-room school;I attended a one-room school,” he said. “Lincoln married a lady from Fayette County; I married a lady from Fayette County. Lincoln’s wife’s first name was Mary; my wife’s first name is Mary. Lincoln’s wife was wealthy, and that is where the comparisons end,” he said while laughing.

Sayre said you can’t be an impersonator without a sense of humor.

He said his wife of 58 years has been very supportive of his career. She helps critique his routine, travels with him at speaking engagements and gave him feedback to write his book.

“He loves doing this,” said Mary.

Some of his favorite audience reactions come from children. During school presentations, he often brings along a smaller Lincoln suit. He’ll ask the kids “who wants to be president?”

Hands fly up in the there.

“You have to give a speech,” he’ll often say.

Sayre selects one student in the class has him or her wear the Lincoln attire and make a persuasive speech to win classmate’s votes.

“That’s something that they’ll never forget,” said Sayre. “I’m nobody, but I represent somebody. You’d be surprised how many kids recognize Lincoln.”

Mary Sayre said he always interacts with his audience and never says no to a picture.

On one occasion, he had made a presentation on top of a riverboat. He made his way to the beach and several people were taking photos with Sayre. It was a very hot day, and Sayre took off his coat and vest and was making his way to the car with his wife. He saw a young boy in a wheelchair who couldn’t get across to the beach to have his picture taken. He quickly put his suit back on and walked to the young boy and asked if he could have his picture made with him.

“It really made his day,” Sayre said.

While impersonating Lincoln, Sayre has had the opportunity to meet a variety of people including former First Lady Laura Bush in 2008. He said it was a great privilege to meet Medal of Honor recipients in 2012 at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville where he was asked to speak. He described it was one greatest honors of his Lincoln impersonating career.

Sayre learned to hone his skills from watching other presenters. He become a member of the Association of Lincoln Presenters where all the actors could benefits from each other’s experience. In 1998, he went to their conference which was held that year in Charleston, Illinois. The “Today Show” filmed the conference.

“We had all makes and models of Lincoln,” Sayre said. “We even had a bald one that described himself as ‘Lincoln with the top down.’”

He developed close relationships with other portrayers including Cliff and Joan Howard. Sayre worked with Cliff Howard, who portrayed Jefferson Davis, to conduct a 45-minute debate in Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York. They debated on a variety of issues such as the U.S. Constitution, states’ rights, the Civil War and habeas corpus. They performed the debate so many times it was committed to memory and comparable to a dance. Howard would make a point and Sayre would always has the rebuttal. Howard would often go off script.

“He was a character,” said Sayre. “He would always ad lib on stage. I later found out from his wife that he did that to keep me on my toes.”

Howard passed away five years ago, and Sayre vowed to never do another Lincoln and Davis debate with anyone else.

Sayre has even traveled as far as the Island of Tinian, which is about 80 miles north of Guam.

In 2007, Sayre started working with the Kentucky Humanities Council, Inc. to book his appearances. He estimates that he has made around 2,000 presentations as Lincoln. This will be his last year as a full-time Lincoln impersonator, but he’s not exactly giving it up completely. Sayre said he hopes to let his gray hair grown in and do a few appearances as the “ghost of Lincoln.”

“I never thought it’d evolve into what it did,” he said. “I don’t regret it at all. It’s been fun, educational and taken me to places I never thought I’d go.”

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