As Lincoln, He Offers Historical Perspective

Posted: February 24, 1994

WEST NORRITON — To see him, you'd swear it was Honest Abe himself.

And when students at the Pathway School saw a tall figure in the doorway leading to their gym on Presidents Day, they were amazed.

"Whoa! You look just like him!" one said.

"I thought he was dead," said another.

Some students just stood motionless, their mouths gaping. Others' eyes stayed glued to the man with the black beard and the stovepipe hat as they walked past him.

But it was not the Great Emancipator returned from the grave. It was Lester M. Carlton Jr., 65, of Lower Providence, who does the occasional turn as the 16th president of the United States.

Steeped in his role for Monday's school appearance, Carlton fielded questions from the special-needs students, who ranged in age from 5 to 21, and threw in tidbits about Lincoln's life.

Megan Atkins, 18, described the presentation as "intense."

Carlton has taken his presidential program to club meetings, special historical events, school assemblies, civic affairs and political gatherings since 1989.

"I went to a Lower Providence Republican dinner in 1988 as Uncle Sam," he said. "The next year, I decided to go as Lincoln. A few people liked it and wanted me to do it every year. Let's face it; at 185, I can't find too many jobs."

Physically, Carlton stacks up close to the president. Besides his strong resemblance to Lincoln, Carlton also is 6-foot-5, one inch taller than Abe, and claims to share his shoe size - 14. To bring his character to life, Carlton bought a 19th-century-style suit from Nina's Tailor Shop in Lower Providence and has grown a beard in the last year.

"I was always clean-shaven. I hated facial hair," said Carlton, adding that his wife, Eleanor, coats his gray beard with mascara.

He closes each presentation with the Gettysburg Address, which Carlton said Lincoln took out of his left breast pocket and read from two handwritten sheets of paper.

In Carlton's other life - that is, when he's not portraying the Rail Splitter - he's working at his own political consulting firm, EPM Consulting Inc., with his wife.

Lincoln has become a forgotten American symbol, Carlton said, noting that in years past Lincoln was admired not only on his birthday, Feb. 12, but throughout the year.

Now, all presidents are lumped together on the third Monday in February, which Carlton said does the nation's leaders a disservice.

"Young people hear Lincoln on TV and think it's a car advertisement between football games," he said.

"I want to put Lincoln back in a prominent position, where he should be. The way the country has commercialized Presidents Day is nothing more than a degrading of Lincoln and all of the presidents."

Tailoring his presentations to fit the group he is speaking to allows him to present two Lincolns, a historical Abe and an observer of the present political scene, Carlton said.

When he speaks at elementary schools, Carlton said, he tells stories about Lincoln's childhood. At high schools where students are studying the Civil War, Carlton speaks as Lincoln would have as the Union's commander-in- chief.And at political functions, Carlton puts Lincoln into today's situations - which the imitator said gave him an outlet for criticizing the Clinton administration, liberalism and local Republican groups.

"I do a lot of research and study to see how Lincoln would fit into today's society," Carlton said. "Lincoln was the first Republican president. As Lincoln, I have a right to criticize. I am Lincoln in today's world."

Even his business card says, "If you can't get the real one - get the next best!"

Eleanor Carlton, who acts as Lincoln's "agent/chauffeur," said that if Lincoln were alive today, he would never be elected president.

Her husband, the president, agreed: "Today, parties choose someone who can raise money and is good-looking. Lincoln was not a good-looking man, and he couldn't raise money."

FOR MORE INFORMATION

* To contact Carlton, call 539-6647.

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