Abraham Lincoln came to Pasadena Park Elementary Thursday in the form of University of Montana history professor Harry Fritz.
As he waited in the hall outside the gym, students gathered to welcome him craned their necks to get a glimpse before he was introduced.
Before talking about Lincoln’s life and rise in politics, Fritz told students how lucky they were. “I enjoy coming to a nice school like this on my birthday,” he said. “When I was a kid, I didn’t have a chance to go to school. Most of what I learned, I learned on my own.”
The West Valley School District invited Fritz to appear at several elementary schools on Thursday as part of its month-long emphasis on Lincoln and celebration of his 200th birthday.
Fritz always stays in character when addressing students. He started doing the impersonations in 1967, when a friend who was a teacher invited him to speak to her class as Lincoln. “I had a hat,” he said. “She asked me to put my hat on and come in to her second-grade class.”
He was a bit unprepared for his first performance, but now Fritz has all of Lincoln’s historical facts at his fingertips even though really young students don’t often focus on history. “They ask a lot about the family,” he said.
Fritz is convincing as Lincoln. His 6-foot-5-inch height nearly matches Lincoln’s 6-foot-4. He wears a black suit and tall top hat to complete the look. For February, when he does most of his impersonations, he grows a beard for his role.
Since his early days Fritz has expanded from only speaking to children as Lincoln to also doing adult groups. His first time speaking to adults occurred when he was invited to the town of Hamilton, Mont., for a President’s Day celebration. “I’d never spoken to adults before,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
Fritz is sometimes asked to say the Gettysburg Address when he speaks, so he keeps a copy tucked up in his hat. He didn’t recite it on Thursday, instead spending his limited time talking about Lincoln’s life. He talked about the Civil War and slavery and how relieved he was when the war ended. “My wife and I celebrated the end of the war by attending a play,” he said. “I remember the beginning of the play, but I don’t remember how it ended. Isn’t that strange?”
He asked students if they had any questions and they responded with a forest of raised hands. Some asked about Lincoln’s family and one student asked if Lincoln had fired one of his generals during the Civil War. When Fritz heard questions about things that happened after Lincoln’s death students were told that he didn’t remember anything after April 15, 1865. “Something happened on that day,” he said.
After an announcement that President Lincoln had to leave to attend to “pressing matters,” Fritz gave a few final words of encouragement to the Pasadena students. “Study hard and read books,” he said.