MOUNT GILEAD — Abraham Lincoln’s tall silhouette was present at Gilead Christian School Friday morning.
“I was in office during that horrible, horrible, horrible war,” Gerald “Jerry” Payn, an Abraham Lincoln presenter, told Gilead Christian School students at both campuses on Friday morning.
Payn, dressed in black Lincoln attire, spoke as the 16th President of the United States. He is in his element in schools being a retired teacher.
He’s also quite comfortable speaking about Lincoln in the first person.
“I was 5 years old and my folks sent me to a neighborhood school. I went with my sister, who was 7. I caught on to reading,” he said.
Self-educated, he became a lawyer, state legislator and Congressman prior to serving as president.
“We were good Christian folks and I began to read the Bible, sounding out the words in that wonderful book.”
Later he borrowed books from neighbors, as “I couldn’t read enough” he told a group of about 40 high schoolers and staff.
History recounts that Lincoln did not like physical labor, opting for academics.
Payn estimated Lincoln had less than one year of formal schooling. “I taught myself,” he said.
Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, died when he was just 9 years old. His stepmother, Sarah, later died while giving birth to a stillborn son.
Payn recalled the now-famous series of 7 Lincoln-Douglas debates with political adversary Stephen Douglas, when both men sought a U.S. Senate seat representing Illinois.
The key topic was slavery, one that sharply divided the nation.
“He dressed fancy to appeal to the fancy people. I dressed down to appeal to the common people,” he said.
Lincoln lost even though he won the popular vote.
Later he sought a higher office. He ran for President in 1860, sweeping the northern states and beating Douglas.
“Coming from such a poor family, my election as President had to be quite a surprise to people.”
Guiding the nation through the Civil War took its toll on his health.
“I went from 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds down to about 150 pounds due to the stress of the war,” he said.
A few days after the war ended he was assassinated. He was only 56 years old, but his place in American history was secured.
Payn lives in Wooster and can be reached at [email protected]