Just a Thought

By Maureen Hart

November gives me several reasons to remember Abraham Lincoln.

For one thing, Abe was the president responsible for granting us the Thanksgiving holiday.

Back on November 28, 1861, he ordered government departments closed for a local day of thanksgiving.

Jim Getty photoThen, on September 28, 1863, Sarah Josepha Hale, the 74-year-old editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular magazine of the period, wrote a letter to President Lincoln urging him to proclaim “a day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.”  Sarah pointed out that for some years there had been increasing interest to have a Thanksgiving held in all of the states on the same day, to become “an American custom and institution.”

Prior to this time, each state scheduled its own Thanksgiving holiday at different times, and it was particularly popular in New England and other Northern states. In fact, George Washington was the first president to proclaim a day of thanksgiving, 74 years before, on October 3, 1789.

Well, Lincoln responded immediately to Mrs. Hale’s request, and set apart the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

Amazingly enough, I am acquainted with Sarah Josepha Hale in the person of Philadelphian Carol Lieberman, whose husband, Jack, portrays Commodore Drayton in our Civil War living history organization, The Confederation of Union Generals (COUG).

I’m even acquainted with Lincoln’s own secretary, John Nicolay, who is portrayed by John Voris. Our mutual acquaintances include Generals Grant, Chamberlain, Meade, Hancock, and my husband, Winfield Scott. As living historians, we’ve even chatted civilly with Robert E. Lee numerous times.

It’s an unusual dual universe in which we all dwell, presenting and socializing with the likes of Louisa May Alcott, Dr. Mary Walker, and Lillie Devereux Blake on the distaff side, and with Generals Henry Jackson Hunt, George Thomas, Abner Doubleday, and even George Custer among the men.

They are all wonderful living historians, but the greatest of them all was the late James A. Getty, our President Lincoln, who passed away on September 28.

COUG likes to claim Jim Getty as a member of our esteemed organization, but in truth, we shared him with a wide range of admirers.

If you look at his website, it notes:

  • Jim Getty was commissioned to perform the voice recording of Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, along with the Gettysburg Address, for playback at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C
  • Getty’s voice is that of President Lincoln at the “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.Getty portrays President Lincoln in the Turner Network film, “The Ironclads”.
  • His voice is that of President Lincoln on A&E’s “Abraham Lincoln: A Biography” and “The Assassination of President Lincoln”.
  • Jim Getty has narrated Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cleveland Pops Orchestra.

When it was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he was the obvious choice to deliver the speech at the National Cemetery, as he did every year. His rendition was the best I have ever heard. It was not bombastic or emotive. It was quiet and persuasive and respectful, a love poem to the Union and to the men who sacrificed to preserve it. It never failed to move me to tears.

Every Remembrance Day for the past eight or nine years, I have traveled to Gettysburg to join in the commemorations for that speech, on the Saturday closest to November 19, the original date of its delivery in 1863. Members of COUG, other living historians, hundreds of reenactors, lovers of history, and tourists gather in the picturesque little town (this year it will be on November 21 and you should really try to make it) to honor a speech that is composed of 268 words, easily delivered in two minutes. And of course, they are there to honor Abraham Lincoln the man and president, as well as all those who fought during the Civil War.

We normally begin our day laying wreaths at various monuments on the battlefield, ending with the at the George Meade equestrian statue (he led the Northern troops at Gettysburg) and at the Albert Woolsen monument, dedicated to the final living member of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Then we break for a bite to eat before marching in the parade, which is a sight to see. Bring the kids along to see both Union and Rebel troops, military bands, and more than one General Grant and General Lee throughout the afternoon.  Leading off the parade will be President Lincoln, but this year, he will not be portrayed by Jim Getty.

Instead, early that morning, some of us will gather at Jim’s gravesite in Evergreen Cemetery, situated about 300 feet from where Lincoln delivered his immortal address, to lay a wreath in his memory. Later, members of COUG and various townspeople and admirers will dress in mourning clothing and black arm bands to lead off the parade in Jim’s memory. There will be a riderless horse and a cushion holding Jim’s stovepipe hat. His family, including wife Joanne, and his sons and daughters will be on hand, because when the parade is over, COUG will be dedicating a monument, newly erected at the Gettysburg Train Museum, near the end of the parade route.

On this moment will be the words: James A. Getty—For His Untiring Efforts To Inculcate The Youth of America By His Portrayal Of Abraham Lincoln And For His Service As a Member of The Confederation Of Union Generals, Dedicated November 21, 2015.

What kind of man inspired this deep love and admiration from his fellow living historians, reenactors, and countless audiences throughout his 40 year career portraying Abraham Lincoln? Well, Jim was a man of consummate grace, scholarship, goodwill, and a strong determination to keep alive the memory of Lincoln by traveling wherever he was called to present to both adults and children.

It was impossible to stump Jim with a question about Lincoln’s life and policies. Jim knew everything about Lincoln, and always tailored his speech and answers to the audience at hand. If he spoke at Steamtown, it was about the role of Union railroads in the Civil War. If he spoke to high school students, it was about service to country and keeping history alive. If he spoke at a battle site, it was about the significance of that particular conflict. If it was to ladies only, he’d mention his beloved wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their children, and how it pained him to see other people’s children go to war. If a Southern sympathizer in the audience took Jim’s Lincoln to task about Northern aggression or the issue of states’ rights, Jim knew the answers, always keeping strictly within his persona as the 16th president.

Despite his gentleness, I felt in awe of Jim Getty, and I always felt that it was an enormous privilege to be in his presence– the closest any of his friends and acquaintances will ever get to meeting Lincoln himself.

But we also liked Jim for his down-to-earth personality in which he liked to cheer on his beloved Chicago Cubs (he’d be crushed over the recent playoffs), listen to music and sing (he was formerly a high school and college choral director), and even share a glass of beer on our patio here in Scranton.

I think all of us in COUG shed tears when Jim passed away from us, even those strong generals in uniform. Every one of us who could be there showed up for his funeral on October 2. Most of us will be there to honor him again on November 21.

I would urge you to make his acquaintance by looking online. You will find videos of Jim Getty delivering the Gettysburg Address, perhaps most memorably with Steven Spielberg and Doris Goodwin Kearns in attendance at the National Cemetery a few years ago. Spielberg had just released his movie called “Lincoln,” for which his leading actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, earned an Academy Award. But I’m sure the great director was at least equally impressed in the presence of the modest Jim Getty.

Finally, I will share with you now a private moment with the great man.  On September 28, my husband and I happened to be in Gettysburg for the wedding of two of our members, Tracie Pasold (she portrays Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy who resided in Richmond) and Thomas Moran (he plays General Benjamin Butler), both of Scranton.

After the Civil War period reception, we were told that Jim Getty was fading quickly, so John and I drove over the nursing home where he was suffering from his last illness.

It was about 7:30 in the evening when we arrived, and Jim happened to be alone in his room. He could barely speak, but he knew we were there, and we had the precious opportunity to tell Jim for one last time how much he was beloved by all of us. He was a religious man, so we said the Lord’s Prayer at his bedside to give him comfort. I leaned over the bed rail and told him again how much we loved him. Barely audible, he spoke his final words to us: “We must be a kinder, gentler people…”

How like Jim to be a teacher to the very end. He died around 11 o’clock that night. I am comforted that he knew for certain he was loved by his family and his hundreds of friends. And I am determined that I will share Jim’s last words with whoever will listen, in the hope we can spread the powerful sentiment: We must be a kinder, gentler people.

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