“My mission is to keep history alive.”
So says James Hayney about his role as an Abraham Lincoln presenter. Hayney, a Camp Hill resident, has been keeping history alive around central Pennsylvania and beyond for most of the last decade.
He certainly looks the part. Hayney’s body is long and lean; he stands well over 6 feet tall and sports the trademark beard worn by the 16th president. Hayney states, with a wink, that he is about the same age as Lincoln at the end of his presidency.
Hayney took a circuitous route to the role of Abraham Lincoln, which he now plays full-time. He explained that, during his 20s and 30s, he was a telephone man, but had this dream of becoming an actor. As he approached his 40s, he saved enough to take a leap of faith and follow his dream. He resigned from corporate life and spent some time in New York, expanding his acting skills and trying to break into commercials. After a few months, he moved back to the Harrisburg area to work in the local theater scene.
“I’m a Harrisburg guy,” he explains, noting the terrific location for a professional Lincoln portrayer. “My roots are here. My son was born here.”
He began to find acting gigs around central Pennsylvania. He acted in Harrisburg’s Open Stage and Gamut Theatre. He soon began getting parts at Allenberry Playhouse and became a regular there. Then he received an unexpected break.
In 2002, the National Civil War Museum contacted him about playing the role of Lincoln for one of its fundraisers. Hayney accepted and began to research his new role, as any good actor would. He soon found that Lincoln fascinated him.
A short time later, Hayney began to look for a one-man play about Lincoln, one that spoke to him. He found it—“Mr. Lincoln”—by Herbert Mitgang. The one-man play begins at Ford’s Theater just as Lincoln is about to be assassinated. Lincoln sees his life in a series of flashbacks just as Booth pulls the trigger: from his early days as a rail-splitter to his latter years as a lawyer and politician.
Hayney presented “Mr. Lincoln” on Lincoln’s birthday and President’s Day at theaters in Carlisle and Harrisburg. As he continued to play the role, he began to wonder if he could work full-time as a Lincoln portrayer.
Jim Getty, the long-time Lincoln presenter from Gettysburg, became an early mentor to Hayney. After Hayney approached him, Getty explained the thorough research he had conducted for the role and allowed him to peruse his extensive library.
Getty also put him in touch with people and organizations that helped him make his start.
“Jim Getty is a terrific guy and was a tremendous help to me,” Hayney said.
Hayney started to build his own Lincoln library, which includes David Herbert Donald’s “Lincoln,” Harold Holzer’s “Lincoln President-Elect” and “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, among many other writings and biographies. Hayney purchased the complete collection of Lincoln’s writings and studied them extensively. He discovered that, the more he learned about the Great Emancipator, the more he admired him.
“There is no point of diminishing returns with Lincoln,” Hayney states. “The more I learn about him, the better he gets.”
Hayney turned his love for Lincoln into a career in 2005. He now spends a lot of time at Gettysburg, performing or giving presentations at the Battle Theater, the Dobbin House and the Fairfield Inn, just outside of the city. He also speaks to many corporate and school groups.
He explains that he prepares for his presentations by researching the group he will be speaking to and makes sure his knowledge of Lincoln coincides with their interests and their mission. Then he takes off his wedding ring—Lincoln never wore one—and puts on the mole. When he speaks to a group, he presses forward with a two-pronged attack.
“I always try to start out with humor,” Hayney says. “Lincoln was an extremely funny guy. Back in Illinois during his circuit-riding days, people would travel from miles around to hear him tell his stories at the taverns at night. He was almost a stand-up comedian.”
Once Hayney has his audience chuckling at one of his Lincoln stories, he hits them with a finishing punch. “When I get folks good and relaxed, then I sneak in some history lessons,” he says with a laugh.
In 2009, the National Civil War Museum contacted him about a project. The museum wanted Hayney to become the Lincoln that it displays on a daily basis. The “Meet Mr. Lincoln” video, which can be found both in the museum and on its online website, is Hayney’s portrayal of Lincoln answering questions about the Civil War, slavery and his presidency.
Hayney traveled to Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh to film the project. “It was an exhausting experience,” he remembers. “We worked 12-hour days doing the filming. I had to be at the top of my game every minute.”
But Hayney remains thrilled about the final product, which puts his talents on full display. He is grateful that the museum gave him such an opportunity.
“The folks at the museum—Wayne Motts, Trini Nye and Kate McDermott—do such great things and have been so supportive,” he said. “I love to go there whenever I can.”
Being a Lincoln presenter has given Hayney a wide range of opportunities. He performed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration. He received the key to the town of Hummelstown and, earlier this year, was grand marshal for the Pennsylvania Farm Show. He even threw out the first pitch at a Harrisburg Senator’s baseball game.
Hayney sometimes appears with other historical presenters, including a woman who plays the part of Mrs. Lincoln, a man who portrays the powerful abolitionist, Frederick Douglass and, of course, another presenter who portrays Lincoln’s favorite general, Ulysses Grant. On occasion, Hayney even gets on television. He recently completed a commercial for the History Channel.
When asked which of Lincoln’s speeches is his best, Hayney immediately points to the second inaugural address. He also considers Lincoln’s first inaugural speech important, simply because of the gravity of a nation in crisis. Naturally, Hayney admires the Gettysburg Address, as he feels the president’s “few appropriate remarks” were exactly right for the occasion.
“Of course, not everyone was thrilled with that speech,” Hayney chuckles. “Some folks didn’t like it at all, like the Harrisburg Patriot.”
Hayney remains more than a little amused that the Patriot finally apologized for bashing Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg as the “silly remarks of the President” that “shall be no more repeated or thought of.” Hayney acknowledges that pointing out the Patriot’s lack of vision gets him lots of laughs and applause.
“When I point out that editorial, I always like to add that it’s no wonder that the Patriot is only now published three days a week,” he said, smiling. “People always burst out laughing and clapping about that line.”
Hayney readily admits he has had to change with the times. When he started out doing his Lincoln research, he usually bought books, many of them hardcover. Now, he downloads them and reads them on his Kindle. When he started out in 2005, he had a brochure, with his address and phone number. Now, he has a website where people can get all his contact information, as well as information, pictures and testimonies about his Lincoln presentation.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the support Hayney gets from his wife, Beverly. Though she prefers to stay in the background, she clearly is very important to him.
“She is the love of my life,” he said. “We have been married 11 years, and I have loved every day.” Beverly is a nurse practitioner and works for the PinnacleHealth, where Hayney also volunteers one day a week.
When Hayney is asked how portraying Lincoln has touched his life, he is quick to answer. “Lincoln makes me a better person. Whether I am dressed like Lincoln or I am wearing a ball cap and T-shirt and just driving around town, I don’t want to do anything to denigrate his name.”
Spend any amount of time with James Hayney talking about Abraham Lincoln, and his admiration for the man is bound to rub off on you.
You can find out more information about James Hayney at his website, www.lookingforalincoln.com. He also appears in the video, “Meet Mr. Lincoln,” at the National Civil War Museum and at the museum’s website.