Ask me who my favorite president is, and I will respond without hesitation. I feel a personal and serendipitous connection to Abraham Lincoln. Our 16th president isn’t just a distant historical figure to me; his presence has been woven into the fabric of my life since childhood.
I grew up in Mount Vernon where I attended Lincoln Elementary School. In the school’s foyer, which in my memory was quite grand, hung a portrait of Abraham Lincoln that became as familiar as a photo of a beloved relative. From kindergarten through sixth grade, I felt Lincoln’s sleepy warm eyes watching over me.
I’ve admired the man since the day my first grade teacher told a story of Lincoln working as a store clerk in New Salem, Illinois. Honest Abe accidentally short-changed a customer by a few pennies and walked several miles to return the money. The simple story cemented in my young mind the value of honesty and the integrity of Lincoln.
As a child, I was always proud to be from the Land of Lincoln where Abraham Lincoln moved with his family in 1830. He grew up poor and never had more than a year of formal education, but he studied to become a lawyer and eventually served as an Illinois state representative. Like most sons and daughters of Mount Vernon, I knew that long ago Lincoln visited our town to work at the impressive white building called the Appellate Courthouse.
It wasn’t until fifth grade that our new young teacher, Mr. Cleo Holt, captivated me with his lessons about our school’s namesake leading our country through an unfathomable time in history. The classroom faded away, as Mr. Holt passionately taught us how Lincoln was elected as president just weeks before the first state seceded from the Union, how his presidency was consumed by the brutal Civil War, how he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, gave the Gettysburg Address, won a second presidential election and was tragically shot and killed.
I left my hometown after high school and became an English teacher in Florida where schools were commonly and uncomfortably named for Confederate generals. Lincoln was with me every time I tearfully taught the poem Oh Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman. Through extended metaphor, the poem tells about the death of Lincoln just after the Civil War ended. The last lines read, “The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done, From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won: Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, fallen cold and dead.”
Lincoln was with me year after year when I taught Irene Hunt’s beautiful novel Across Five Aprils which tells the story of the Creighton family who lives in Jasper County, Illinois during the time of the Civil War. The protagonist, Jethro, is only nine when the war begins. As he struggles with mixed messages from family members who support opposite sides of the war, he writes to President Lincoln. Lincoln’s kind response provides the guidance, wisdom and mercy that young Jethro is seeking. In turn, readers feel personally comforted and led by Lincoln’s words.
I felt I’d returned to my roots when I found myself teaching at Grant Middle School in Fairview Heights, Illinois. Ulysses S. Grant was, of course, a dear friend of Lincoln. The most memorable field trip I ever took with my students was to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I was touched by the incredible exhibits, particularly one that highlighted Lincoln as an imperfect man of faith whose antislavery stance grew more firm as he sought guidance from scripture. He said, “I know there is a God, and that he hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming, and I know that His hand is in it. If He has a place and work for me – and I think he has – I believe I am ready.”
Thomas Wolfe wrote you can’t go home again, but a couple of years ago I landed right back in Mount Vernon. I remember taking a drive to reacquaint myself with my hometown. As I turned toward the Appellate Courthouse, I saw something new to me ~ a beautiful bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln. The nine-foot-tall statue features Lincoln wearing his distinctive stove top hat and carrying a briefcase. His other hand is outstretched, as if to personally welcome me back home.
The statue, created by Ohio sculptor Alan Cottrill, portrays Lincoln as a young lawyer and is accessible to the public through the black iron gates of the Appellate Courthouse which continues to be used in the same manner as it was when constructed in 1857. An inscription explains the monument commemorates Lincoln’s visit to the courthouse in November, 1859 on behalf of his client the Illinois Central Railroad. The plaque reads, “Lincoln’s victory in this case rescued the railroad from financial ruin. If Lincoln had lost this case, the Illinois Central most likely would have been forced into bankruptcy, which would have been disastrous to the state of Illinois and its economy.”
The monument came into existence through the efforts of a local Illinois Bicentennial Committee, led by attorney Mark Hassikis. The committee secured close to $100,000 including donations from the community, commissioned the statue, and held the monument’s dedication in 2008. Hassikis also attended Lincoln Elementary School and happens to be a longtime friend of my family. I called him to chat about the statue which led down a trail of conversation about our school days, our hometown, and our mutual esteem for our 16th president. Seems I’m not the only one who feels such a nostalgic connection to Abraham Lincoln and is proud to call the Land of Lincoln home. §
“Be sure to put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.”
~ Abraham Lincoln
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