Perhaps it was his black beard and his tall, thin frame. Or maybe it was the reaction he got when he took his kids trick-or-treating, dressed as 16th president Abraham Lincoln. At age 35, John Cooper finally took people’s comments to heart.
For the past 25 years, Cooper, a 1973 Heidelberg alumnus, has donned the stovepipe hat and top coat as a professional Lincoln impersonator. His first performances were at local elementary schools around President’s Day.
Now, at age 60, having grown into the wrinkles that marked the famed president’s face and reverently admitting to “chemically enhancing” his beard, Cooper is now paid for his performances, which have expanded to include the Ohio State Fair for five consecutive years.
Cooper considers himself a Lincoln scholar, extensively studying the former president and incorporating facts from his personal collection of more than 70 books about Lincoln and some 200 books about the Civil War.
“To do a good job, you have to be conversant every minute,” said Cooper from his home in Baltimore, Ohio. He tailors his performances to his audiences; most involve an informative and entertaining speech, followed by a Q&A session. “Nobody can stump me,” he added.
Currently, Cooper has booked about 25-30 performances a year, but he’d like to grow that number to about 50. “I enjoy sharing the history and seeing people get interested in history,” he said. “It’s great fun to bring it alive. It’s very rewarding to see little kids and older folks light up about the prospect of Lincoln.”
For his performances, he remains in character, speaking only in first person and keeping politics out of the picture. He frequently gets questions about the assassination or about Lincoln’s family after he died, a tricky challenge since the much of the subject matter wasn’t known until after his death.
In addition to his performances across the state, Cooper is involved with the Association of Lincoln Presenters – about 120 in 35 states from coast to coast. The Lincoln look-alikes gather annually on a date closest to the president’s assassination. This year, the convention is being held in Columbus April 11-14 and titled “Lincoln and His Generals.” In addition to touring historically significant sites, participants also will take in a production of “Our American Cousin,” the play that was staged in the Ford Theatre when Lincoln was assassinated.
As he plans the convention, Cooper is continuing with his busy performance schedule. In the warmer months, he can be seen at fairs and festivals across the state. He enjoys the opportunity to meet with people of all ages at community celebrations, commemorative events, historical societies, conventions and even birthday parties.
Children remain his favorite audience. “I like all of them (audiences),” he said. “Kindergartners and first-graders are the toughest, but the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders are totally absorbed. High school kids like to meet me the most. For some reason, Lincoln is cool. I think maybe it’s the hat.”
Or that chemically enhanced beard!
Happy Presidents Day.
Read more about Cooper at www.fourscore7yearsago.com.