Students at Columbus East High School made another trip back in time to learn more about one of the nation’s former presidents. For the 22nd straight year on Presidents Day, social studies teacher Greg Lewis took on the character of a U.S. commander in chief.

Lewis revealed his first clue Monday for this year’s featured president by walking into his Advanced College Project class with a golden retriever. Lewis then pointed to a series of photos displayed from a projector about this year’s subject, Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, with his dog Liberty.

The department head undergoes a complete transformation each year to look as authentic as possible. On Monday, Lewis wore a dark blue sport coat, vest and a tie as part of his costume to portray Ford, who is the most recent president he has ever portrayed.

For his transformation this year, Lewis dyed his hair medium blonde to resemble Ford, who was president from August 1974 to January 1977.

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“Being somewhat physically accurate is pretty important to me,” Lewis said.

In past years, Lewis has offered clues to students so they could figure out who he was portraying. This year, Lewis took a different approach in speaking about Ford’s life growing up, how he became president and some of the things he was known for while in office.

Students were given different political buttons to wear that read “WIN, Whip Inflation Now” and “Betty’s Husband for President,” highlighted in Lewis’ presentation. Lewis, who referred to himself portraying Ford in the first person, said that Ford was known as a moderate Republican.

“Right away, I want you to be thinking what your button is about,” Lewis told his students. “I never wanted to be president. I wanted to be Speaker of the House.”

Lewis reminded students that Ford gave his predecessor, Richard Nixon, a full pardon after the Watergate Hotel break-in scandal, about a month into his presidency. Ford survived two assassination attempts within 15 days of each other by women, Lewis said.

Olivia Hoeltke, a junior at Columbus East, said Lewis’ approach in his classroom was informative and helped her better understand aspects of Ford’s life and his presidency.

Lewis also travels to Central Middle School and Southside Elementary School as part of the annual Presidents Day lesson, reading as much as he can about a particular president for his Presidents Day interaction with students.

“I don’t really script anything,” Lewis said. “I’ve enjoyed portraying all of them.”

Lewis, who got his hair dyed for Monday’s program by C4 cosmetology students, also made his annual trip to Gill’s Barber Shop, showing shop owner Gill Pierce a photo of the president he intends to portray. Pierce plays an important part in making sure the transformation looks as authentic as possible, Lewis said.

Lewis said one difference this year is that a number of high school seniors will be eligible to vote in the May primary election and again in the November general election. That’s important since students are asked to think about important characteristics a good president should have, he said.

Gerald Ford facts

  • He was born July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Nebraska.
  • Attended the University of Michigan, majoring in economics.
  • Served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Jan. 3, 1949, until Dec. 6, 1973.
  • Became the only U.S. president to never have campaigned for or been elected to the offices of president and vice president.
  • He died Dec. 26, 2006, at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.

Source: Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation website

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