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Lincoln lives on in Littleton man

Retired aerospace engineer portrays the life of the 16th president


John Voehl lives something of a double life. A retired Lockheed aerospace engineer from Littleton, he’s a devoted husband and grandfather.

But to thousands of people across the country, he’s Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president.

Voehl is one of dozens of “Lincoln presenters,” dedicated, bearded historical enthusiasts who recreate the life and times of the Great Emancipator.

“People tell me they felt like they were really with Lincoln,” said Voehl from Kauai, Hawaii, where he was gearing up to present his 1,199 presentation as part of a lengthy tour that will see him don the stovepipe hat in California, Wyoming and around Colorado in coming months.

Voehl, 65, presents to schools, historical societies, retirement homes and other groups. He’s spoken in 42 states.

“The kids are just mesmerized,” said Katie Howell, a fifth-grade teacher at Academy Charter School in Castle Rock.

Voehl has been presenting at Academy for a decade, as the annual culmination of the fifth-graders’ study of the Civil War.

“Every year, his presentation is different,” Howell said. “He’s got so much information. Even I’m fascinated by it.”

Voehl’s presentations are made all the more enjoyable by his personality, said Yvonne Ludwig, master of the Pleasant Park Grange in Conifer, where Voehl has performed several times.

“Aside from being Abe Lincoln, he’s just a lovely and friendly individual,” Ludwig said.

Voehl’s first jaunt as Lincoln was at a Boy Scout camp in 1996, after a friend asked him to do a silly skit based on Lincoln’s character in the 1989 movie “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

Though Lincoln never actually said “Party on, dudes,” Voehl said the experience impacted him — especially once he realized how strongly he resembles Lincoln.

“I also discovered the rock star awe Lincoln has with a lot of people,” Voehl said. “People are inspired by the things he did, and the magic of his true life story. Born in a log cabin with a dirt floor, he became not only a president, but the one at the moment of our greatest national crisis: the Civil War. He not only got us through it, but made the country different than it was before — for the better.”

From an original half-hour presentation, Voehl has developed dozens of Lincoln presentations, covering topics like the president’s biography, policies, lifestyle and achievements.

Donning an impeccable costume, Voehl’s presentations often start with the president seated and preparing to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the South.

“I talk about what day of the week it is, how I’m preparing to go to a Cabinet meeting to present the document, and what’s going on in Lincoln’s life,” he said. “I have authentic-looking reproductions of historical documents. People get so into it they think it’s real.”

Voehl’s wife Pamela increasingly accompanies John in presentations as Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s wife. She also does solo presentations. She was unavailable to speak for this story.

Lincoln is often viewed as a titanic or iconic figure, Voehl said, so it’s been humbling to get to know Lincoln the man.

“My expectation was that like most historical figures, is that if you dig down you find the dirt,” he said. “You’ll find out he kicked his dog or was unfaithful or often inebriated. You can say `yeah but.’

“But the closer you get to Lincoln, the better he is.”

Still, Lincoln was not without troubles. He was depressed, sometimes to the point of being suicidal, Voehl said.

“He called it his `melancholy,’ ” Voehl said. “There were times his friends would sequester him and took sharp objects away from him.”

How Lincoln would respond to current affairs or politics is tough to answer, Voehl said.

“I’m often asked what Lincoln would think of Black Lives Matter or Barack Obama or Confederate statues,” Voehl said. “I’ve found it’s hard to say what he would have thought without injecting myself and my own beliefs.”

What would Lincoln think of President Trump?

“I think Lincoln would hope that the personality of the man does not rule the office, as much as the severity and importance of the office should rule the man,” Voehl said. “Trump’s not the first person in that category, though. Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson were also men of huge personalities.”

The life of Abraham Lincoln has many lessons to impart on us today, Voehl said.

“He teaches us perseverance,” Voehl said. “To never give up on anything. He operated at a high level while feeling miserable.”

Lincoln also teaches us to stay the course and maintain civility when our cause is just, Voehl said.

“As Commander in Chief, he believed that the idea that all men are created equal had to survive,” Voehl said. “When faced with opponents who are abusive and demeaning, Lincoln never castigated his opponents. He expended his strength to use his words to get people to look at things from his perspective.”

Voehl is nine years older than Lincoln was when he was killed. But Lincoln will live on, Voehl said, living not only through the people who portray him, but through his words, as in the closing lines of the Gettysburg Address, “that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


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