Students in Allison White’s sixth-grade classroom at Southside Elementary School stood side-by-side, right hand to their foreheads, as they prepared to salute the nation’s youngest commander-in-chief.
For 23 years, Columbus East High School history teacher Greg Lewis has undergone a complete transformation into a former U.S. president for Presidents Day. His goal is to look as authentic as possible.
On Presidents Day Monday, after donning a black coat with tails, a thick gray mustache and a pair of Pince-nez eyeglasses, Theodore Roosevelt was in the building.
“Over the years, I try to find different things to do. This year I’m going to lay out a few artifacts and have them try to be historic sleuths to figure out why these particular things are included,” he said.
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This year, however, is bittersweet for Lewis. It’s the first time since 1999 he has ever repeated a character. Lewis first performed as Roosevelt that year.
In 1997, former East television student director Vic Fields suggested Lewis dress up as a president with him for Presidents Day.
“I’ve just continued doing it, and I’m more into it every year,” Lewis said. “I do it selfishly as much for me as I do it for the kids. It’s pretty important to me.”
No matter who he portrays, each year always brings new surprises.
The first year, Lewis spent a majority of the day in a wheelchair to portray Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who used a wheelchair after suffering from polio as a child. Another year, Lewis gave a history lesson around a poker table, portraying Warren G. Harding.
Lewis traded out his glasses for the pair of Pince-nez Monday and entered White’s classroom to the tune of “Hail to the Chief” as Roosevelt.
Without a moment’s pause, students identified Roosevelt as soon as Lewis walked in. He laid out several items on the floor and asked students to use their “historical sleuth” skills to determine the significance of each item.
From a teddy bear, which got its name from Roosevelt — to a white button-down shirt with a large red stain on the front, students looked at the items and enthusiastically shared their observations.
“Ew! It’s blood!” one student shouted, referring to the shirt Roosevelt wore during an assassination attempt in 1912.
“It’s a teddy bear. Get it, Teddy?” another said.
Lewis continued with a 30-minute presentation about Roosevelt, speaking in first-person, sharing everything from his greatest accomplishments as president of the United States to his animal menagerie, naming all his pets, which included a small bear named Jonathan Edwards, a one-legged hen, a blue macaw and two ponies.
Lots of questions from the students revolved around the pets — so much so that Lewis told them to ask different questions.
So they did.
“Of your children, which one is your favorite?” 10-year-old Victoria Carter asked Roosevelt.
“I love them all,” he responded, chuckling in between.
“Did you ever own a teddy bear?” another student asked.
“No, but I’m sure my kids did,” he replied.
The teddy bear earned its name from Roosevelt after he refused a kill a captured bear on a bear-hunting trip in 1902. A New York toy maker saw a political cartoon of “Teddy” and “the bear,” and he asked Roosevelt if he could name the stuffed animal after him. Roosevelt said yes, but Lewis joked that the president said he wouldn’t be able to make any money from them.
Maia Jameson, a sixth-grade student, said she didn’t know Roosevelt actually didn’t kill the bear — she just thought the teddy bear was named after him. Jameson saw Lewis portray former U.S. President Gerald Ford last year.
“It’s always so fun to see him dress up and act like a president,” Jameson said. “I just find it so entertaining. He’s very believable.”
[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”A look back at presidential portrayals” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]
1997: Franklin D. Roosevelt
1998: Zachary Taylor
1999: Theodore Roosevelt
2000: Martin Van Buren
2001: Grover Cleveland
2002: Ulysses S. Grant
2003: William Howard Taft
2004: Benjamin Harrison
2005: Herbert Hoover
2006: Andrew Johnson
2007: Chester A. Arthur
2008: John Adams
2009: James K. Polk
2010: Millard Fillmore
2011: James A. Garfield
2012: Franklin Pierce
2013: John Quincy Adams
2014: William McKinley
2015: Rutherford B. Hayes
2016: James Buchanan
2017: Warren G. Harding
2018: Gerald R. Ford
2019: Theodore Roosevelt