History comes alive each year on Presidents Day, when clues tease and fascinate Columbus East social studies students trying to guess who teacher Greg Lewis is portraying.

No one is told ahead of time who the chosen president is. Finding out is part of the fun in this educational classroom experience.

So students come up with and ask questions that help reveal the chosen president’s identify, though questions about his personal and political lives.

For this year’s subject — identified eventually as Warren G. Harding, 29th president of the United States — Lewis arrived for his Advance College Project class donning a period outfit. His get-up this year featured a long black coat, a vest and a red tie. The costume was designed to mirror the look of Harding, who died in 1923 after two years in office.

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A poker table was brought in as an educational prop to explain to students that Harding had gambled away a set of White House china in a poker game with friends, Lewis said.

Lewis entered the classroom Monday and sat down around the table with five students. Within reach of each were playing cards, poker chips and glasses filled with what was designed to look like whiskey.

The chairman of the social studies department has made it a tradition on Presidents Day to dress in full costume as a former president, which he has done every year since 1997.

Lewis undergoes a transformation — hair, costume and overall appearance — in order to be as authentic as possible, he said.

The Presidents Day presentation also has a road show component, with Lewis making visits to classrooms at Central Middle School and Southside Elementary School.

This was his 21st year portraying a former president, which typically requires him to read several books about the individual he is portraying.

By the time Presidents Day arrives, Lewis wants to know enough in-depth information about each president so interaction with students in class is spontaneous.

“I don’t script anything,” he said.

Social studies students shared notes with each another Monday as initial details about Harding’s life began to come out.

Toward that end, junior Amanda Heideman asked Lewis what his presidential character’s biggest accomplishments were in office.

Harding created the Bureau of the Budget, which established a federal budget in an effort to rein in government spending, Lewis replied.

Lewis also revealed that his character — often rated as one of the nation’s worst presidents — had two documented affairs and was not in good health for much of his life. He died at age 57 of an apparent heart attack.

Lewis said Harding secretly paid child support for one of the children that resulted from one of the affairs.

Lewis said he prepares for his portrayals by going to Gill’s Barber Shop and showing owner Gill Pierce a picture of the president. That’s so Pierce can offer help in the physical transformation.

Martin Van Buren — eighth U.S. president, 1837 to 1841 — was bald, so Lewis agreed to have his head shaven to portray Van Buren in 2000.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt — 32nd president, 1933 to 1945 — had polio as a child, and used a wheelchair much of his life. So in 1997, Lewis found a wheelchair and spent most of the day in it.

His wife, Nancy Lewis, assists in the transformation by curling and spraying his hair, if needed, on Presidents Day morning.

His two children, Austin and Lauren, have taken portraits of each character over the years in a pose similar to an image of each president.

“The physical transformation is really important to me,” Greg Lewis said.

Since costumes aren’t free, Lewis can tap into a $1,500 grant from the Bartholomew Consolidated School Foundation to purchase costumes for his presidential portrayals.

Warren G. Harding

29th president of the United States, a Republican from Ohio.

Served from 1921-1923, dying at age 57 from an apparent heart attack.

His term in office was fraught with scandal, but he embraced technology and was known to be sensitive to the plights of women and minorities.

Born in Marion, Ohio, and became publisher of the Marion Star newspaper.

A trained musician, he organized the Citizen’s Cornet Band, available for both Republican and Democratic political rallies.

Source: Presidential biographics at whitehouse.gov

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com