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During the week of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, Jim Sayre didn’t know he would have to be in 200 places at once.
Well, maybe not 200, but Lawrenceburg’s own Abe look-alike is having a very busy bicentennial.
By the end of this week, Sayre will have visited Frankfort, Nicholasville, Paint Lick, Mt. Vernon, Waynesburg, Elizabethtown, Hodgenville, Georgetown, Somerset and Anderson County’s own public library to portray the nation’s 16th president.
And next week is shaping up to be just as busy, but Sayre couldn’t be happier.
He loves portraying “The Great Emancipator.” If he didn’t, he wouldn’t do it. Besides, it’s not like he’s just suddenly gotten busy.
Sayre has been a Lincoln presenter for 26 years, according to his wife, Mary (yes, that’s her real name), who sometimes portrays Mary Todd Lincoln. He made 134 Lincoln appearances last year (the first year he kept count) and has a number of speaking engagements already lined up for 2009.
One of his most memorable presentations occurred last week, Sayre said.
He and about 375 others with the Kentucky Humanities Council and the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre presented “Our Lincoln,” a musical-historical grand celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday, at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Sayre’s physical resemblance to Lincoln has taken him to many states and he’s presented in front of everyone from preschoolers to college students to former First Lady Laura Bush. But he didn’t mean to do any of it.
It was an accident
Sayre’s Lincoln beard actually began as a sign of protest.
He completed a tour of duty with the military in Ethiopia in the late 1950s, and even though there was “no one around to impress but the camels,” Sayre and the other soldiers were required to shave everyday, he said.
So, when he got out of the service in 1959, he grew a beard.
Sayre said he had his beard before the hippies had theirs and back then, the hair on his face made him an outcast.
“But I didn’t care,” he said.
He kept the beard on and off until the late 1970s when someone encouraged him to enter a Lincoln look-alike contest.
Sayre said he rented a costume in Louisville for $50, even though first prize in the contest only paid $75.
“The chances this was going to be lucrative were very slim,” he said.
Sayre finished third in the look-alike contest and won $25. However, he also won $25 in a beard contest, so he broke even.
“I thought, ‘I’m done. That was fun, but it’s over with. I quit,’ “ he said.
However, the universe thought otherwise.
Sayre started getting calls asking him to portray Lincoln here or there, and the years that followed were full of presentations.
A waste of time?
Some of Sayre’s most prized possessions can be found in a number of scrapbooks he has kept over the years. What are these possessions? Thank you letters that were written by children whose classrooms he visited.
Several stand out in his mind, including one that said, “Mr. Sayre, Thank you for wasting your time and visiting our school.”
Another favorite letter came from a student who had witnessed one of Sayre’s anti-drug presentations while dressed as Lincoln. That child wrote, “I won’t drink no beer.”
Another memorable note came from a child in Lawrenceburg. That letter read, “I think you would make a better president than Bill Clinton.”
Sayre said he treasures the letters because of how natural they are. The letters aren’t edited and haven’t been corrected.
“It’s their expressions in their own words,” he said.
Whether it’s speaking in front of children or in front of a packed audience at The Kennedy Center, Sayre said he stays pretty calm.
Performing at The Kennedy Center was quite a treat though, he said.
“I’d never been there never the less go out on stage,” he said. “But I wasn’t nervous.”
“I don’t think he ever is,” his wife added.
Sayre said he has experienced some pretty important events including when “Our Lincoln” opened last year at the Singletary Center for the Arts on the University of Kentucky campus.
Over the years, he has met some pretty important people, including Herbert Hoover’s grandson, former President George W. Bush and a host of other Lincolns.
Too many Lincolns gets a little ‘weird’
The Association of Lincoln Presenters was founded in 1990 and Sayre was one of the charter members.
He has since served as vice president, on the board of directors and as the membership chairman.
The first association convention was in Lexington in 1995, and a little over 30 people attended. The organization has grown a little since then, Sayre said.
Now there are about 300 members, but not all of them are Lincoln presenters. Some present other historical figures including Mary Todd Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Still, the majority are Lincolns, and getting that many Lincoln presenters together can be a little weird, Sayre said.
“You’re always trying to find your husband,” said Mary Sayre, who also attends the conventions and many of Sayre’s presentations.
Not all of the presenters look exactly like Lincoln, but “most of them really have the knowledge,” Sayre said.
The knowledge is one of the most important parts to Sayre, whose main focus is educating others about Honest Abe.
To make himself as knowledgeable as possible, Sayre said he reads — a lot.
Sayre has several different presentations, including the one he does as Kentucky Chautauqua’s Lincoln. He has a couple bookshelves full of books on Lincoln and lots of contacts to call if he ever has an unanswered question.
Sayre said one of his best friends and fellow Lincoln presenters, Bill Sublett, taught him a lot about how to be a good presenter. Sublett passed away a few years ago, but Sayre is passing on his tradition by advising other up-and-coming presenters.
Getting called out by ‘The Possum’
Even in his street clothes, Sayre is known to get a few second looks.
A lot of times when he and Mary are on the road, other cars will drive by them, only to tap their brakes to see if they can believe their eyes. The passers-by usually wave and go on, Mary said.
Some of the times Sayre gets noticed are more memorable than others.
Several years ago, the Sayres decided to take a trip to the Grand Ole Opry to watch George Jones in concert. They bought their tickets at the door, but still ended up in the center of the audience about six or eight rows back.
“We couldn’t have gotten better seats,” Sayre said.
But in the middle of the concert, Jones stopped, noticed Sayre and asked him to stand up.
“We talked for about six or seven minutes,” Sayre said. “Everybody else just had to wait.”
Aside from enjoying the occasional concert, Sayre said he enjoys fishing a little in his pond and spending time with his family when (and if) he has spare time.
But there won’t be any fishing this week.
Sayre will spend Thursday, Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday, in Hodgenville — Lincoln’s birthplace — and help introduce the new penny. Where else would Lawrenceburg’s Abe be on such a momentous occasion?
E-mail Shannon Mason Brock at email@example.com.