The Role of a Lifetime

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James Hayney Brings Abraham Lincoln to Life

By Karen Hendricks  |  Photography by Casey Martin

They come from Fortune 100 companies, government agencies and departments. CEOs, government appointees, and coworkers alike gather, to let history shape and mold their leadership skills today. Programs organized by The Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg run at least 25 times every year; Managing Director Angela Sontheimer says the three-day leadership experiences kick off on Friday nights.

“We tell the group this experience will be different from any type of training or leadership development they’ve experienced,” she says. “Then we say, ‘We can talk to you about Gettysburg’s history or we can introduce you to the 16th president.’” And in walks James Hayney, a man who today walks in the footsteps of Lincoln, but never could have predicted this “role of a lifetime.”

A Lightbulb Moment

Abraham Lincoln presenter James Hayney has held numerous roles throughout his life. But he never saw his ultimate role coming. A self-described “high school dropout” who served in the Navy, Hayney went on to earn his GED, graduate from Penn State University, and devote his career in management to telephone company Bell of Pennsylvania.

Hayney, who lives 30 miles north of Gettysburg in Camp Hill, says he was “bitten by the acting bug” later in life, around the age of 40. Despite those who questioned or doubted his plan to become an actor, he studied acting in New York, and soon found regular work as a union actor in regional theatre, performing regularly in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Carlisle, and elsewhere.

“I was asked to dress up as Lincoln in 2002 for a fundraiser at the Civil War Museum [in Harrisburg],” he recalls. He was having stage makeup applied when he realized he had an uncanny resemblance to Lincoln, including the “right body type.” It was a glimpse into the future, one that would alter his retirement years.

Hayney has focused on one role exclusively—Lincoln—for the past 16 years. He began by searching for a one-person play on Lincoln and researching the role. As part of that research, he met with the late James Getty, well known in Gettysburg circles for his portrayal of the 16th president from 1977 until his death in 2015.

“He was the dean of Abraham Lincolns, a wonderful man,” says Hayney. A deep friendship ensued, with the two men recommending the other for appearances when one had a conflict. Hayney became a sought-after Lincoln presenter, building to a steady rate of 170 annual appearances. Now 78, Hayney says, “I’m as busy as I want to be.”

Lincoln’s Leadership

So what does it take to step into the role and assume the identity of Abraham Lincoln? “Not only is his knowledge encyclopedic, but he has a huge resemblance to Abraham Lincoln as well,” says Sontheimer of Hayney.

“To play Lincoln, you have to take on the wonderful attributes of Lincoln,” says Hayney. “You have to be honest, to have a love of people. As I say many times, doing Lincoln makes me a better person.” Even if he’s stuck in traffic, Hayney says he doesn’t “do anything to denigrate the image of Lincoln.”

Hayney tailors appearances to audiences, but Lincoln’s leadership is a prevalent theme. “He talks a lot about his cabinet, why he made some of the difficult decisions he did make…how he led the country in making a mid-course correction and how he used the Gettysburg Address to say not only do we want to keep this experiment of democracy alive, but we want to unite the country,” says Sontheimer.

“Lincoln was a great listener, and he was always trying to keep growing and improving. For example, how can you tell people slavery is inherently wrong when people have lived with it for years? He kept trying to get people to understand the issue of slavery…in a manner in which people would understand. He also had compassion,” says Hayney.

Although he estimates more than 60 percent of his bookings occur in Gettysburg, Hayney says he’s enjoyed numerous unique appearances over the years: As grand marshal of the Pennsylvania State Farm Show, he rode in a wagon pulled by Percheron horses. He also tailored a script to the 150th anniversary of the Secret Service in Washington, D.C. And every year, he returns to an elementary school in Milton, Pa., to speak with first graders.

Hayney often references his collection of Lincoln books, in his home office appropriately dubbed “the Lincoln room” and decorated with framed posters and memorabilia from his appearances. “Lincoln was such a wonderful writer—he’s so precise, there are no extra words, and he organizes his talks in terms of past, present, and future,” says Hayney.

Hayney finds time for a few other pursuits. A lifelong runner, he points to a recent running trophy, joking that there isn’t a lot of competition in his age category. An entire wall of his home is devoted to National Park Service prints; he and his wife Beverly enjoy hiking in different parks every year.

“We have to plan our trips around his appearances,” says Beverly. “But people even recognize him on vacation with a baseball cap on. Even our waiter in Italy recognized him [as Lincoln].”

Time Traveling

Wendy Allen estimates that she has completed 300 paintings of Abraham Lincoln since her first work in 1983. The internationally known artist, whose work is featured in her Gettysburg gallery “Lincoln into Art,” says Lincoln presenters like Hayney help the public understand that historical figures were real human beings—everyday people and not myths.

“He’s been to the gallery three to four times to meet with patrons. He’s so good with kids, engages them in conversation…he has a gentle nature like Lincoln.”

Allen says she always feels like she’s “time traveling” when Hayney speaks. “It’s like magic; he respects the role and knows the importance of the legacy he carries.”

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