Penkava: Taking the mystery out of history

Recently my wife and I went to the Raue Center for the Arts in Crystal Lake to see “Rushmore Speaks.” The show was a presentation by scholar/author/educator Clay Jenkinson as he took on the persona of two giant heads of state from Mount Rushmore: Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.

We sat in the front row of the balcony, which to me are the best seats in the house. I say that because whenever we sit on the main floor, I always wind up behind the world’s tallest man or the lady sporting a beehive hairdo supported by a full can of Aqua Net.

So there we were, sitting in anticipation as we gazed down upon a sea of elderly white-haired patrons, each one sitting behind someone taller and more Aqua-Netted than themselves.

“Honey,” I observed, “look … it’s all old people.”

“Then it appears we’ll fit in just fine,” she countered.

She was right. I suppose a program about dead presidents didn’t have much appeal to the youth, who were probably at home watching some reality show about angry women living in New Jersey.

But, why, in such a diverse community as we live in, were there so few of the younger persuasion in attendance? Sure, there’s not a lot of action at Mount Rushmore these days. Those four guys just kind of stand there and stare at you. And watching a historian dressed up as Jefferson and Roosevelt talk about the Continental Congress and the bully pulpit may be a bit disconnected from a world of Blackberrys and plasma televisions.

I remember years ago inviting some younger friends to accompany us on another presentation of Mr. Jenkinson. He was assuming the identity of Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame. “Meriwether Lewis?” my friend asked. “What did she do?” Talk about historical disconnect.

But even though we were being entertained by a mountain of carved stone and a man dressed in button-up breeches one moment and a moniker and top hat at another, we somewhat ripened patrons didn’t seem to mind. Somehow what we had read in history books took on a humanity that reminded us that famous people were, well, people after all.

For example, a president can have a sense of humor. Once a man claiming to be Jesus demanded an audience with Abraham Lincoln. The president’s reply? He had the man informed that if he would bring a note from his father, then he would happily receive him on his second coming. Give Mr. Lincoln fourscore and seven points for that snappy answer.

Washington preferred farming to politics, yet as president he never shook hands with visitors because he felt it beneath the dignity of the presidency. So don’t even think of giving him a congratulatory high-five for fathering the country.

As a young man, Roosevelt heard that the buffalo was near extinction. His reaction?

He traveled to the Dakota Territory to kill one before they all disappeared. Yet, he went on to become the greatest presidential conserver of the nation’s natural resources. Bully for him.

Jefferson never wanted to be president, and pictured himself living out his post-revolution days as a farmer in France.

He never gave a single campaign speech and mumbled his way through his presidency. So much for his dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Maybe if more of us understood the humanness of these men, that they were more common than uncommon, that they – but for their mention in a book of history – lived and loved and laughed and cried like the rest of us, then perhaps we wouldn’t have such a historical disconnect. Maybe the younger set would give these famous dead guys a chance to tell their stories. And, at the very least, maybe they’d learn that even the name “Meriwether” could carry a man across a continent.

So the next time Mount Rushmore speaks, let’s hope more of us will listen. After all, we should never take our history for granite.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He recommends the book, “The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” as real history that reads like a thriller. Find out what happens when you mix a 500-pound anaconda in the Amazon rainforest with a bully president. He can be reached at

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