Sunday, February 22, 2009

One inspiration reflects on another

It never ceases to amaze me how our paths in life sometimes intersect with just the right people to help us uncover our true passions and propel us toward our dreams.

Island holds hidden treasure
I found one of these people on a late afternoon in the early 1990s in a classroom on Arsenal Island in the middle of the Mississippi River. John E. Hallwas, a Western Illinois University professor, regional historian and prolific author, was teaching a course on the literature of Illinois. I knew by the end of that first class period that this course and the instructor were going to leave indelible marks and help forge a new path in my life.

I’d always had an interest in regional history and I truly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t mesmerized by the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. Hallwas’s class was going to provide the backdrop I needed to better understand the state which I call home and, as the semester evolved, was to expose me to the literary eloquence of the sixteenth president and the work of authors who wrote of him.

The course and the professor’s encouragement were to lead me down a winding path which continued out of the classroom, through writers’ workshops, onto the pages of Illinois newspapers, into the mediums of corporate communications and out into the world of Lincoln as an enthusiast, lifelong learner and blogger.

Hallwas is now retired from the classroom, but he’s digging deeper than ever into the people and forces that helped to create the Prairie State we know now. When he’s not holed up in some archive or working at home on one of his latest books, you’ll find him traveling from one end of the state to the other, giving talks about Illinois history or his books. From time to time, he steps back to one of his earlier side jobs, providing thought-provoking columns for newspapers in the region.

Hallwas on Lincoln
In that last role, Hallwas recently wrote a series of four articles beginning with Obama’s inauguration and ending on Lincoln’s birthday. The articles cover how Lincoln’s shadow is felt in Illinois and the nation today, the importance of his legacy as a writer, his spiritual journey and why studying Lincoln continues to have value.

I found his columns in the online Lake County Journals:
I’ve taken enough of Hallwas’s courses and read enough of his work to know some of the common themes he would cover in these articles, yet even after more than a decade and a half of exposure to his work, I always take away a new perspective and a greater appreciate for the subject at hand, thanks to his insightful coverage and well-developed narrative.

Hallwas was a big proponent of his students reading their work aloud, so I wasn’t surprised to see him share how it helped mold Lincoln the writer:

Through exposure to such noted books, frequent reading aloud, much effort at writing, and eventual practice at speaking, he gradually developed a feeling for the rhythms of language and a talent for precise word choice. He even wrote a few poems.

One of the things I’ve always liked about reading Hallwas is that he can get his point across and show his authority on a subject without resorting to a bunch of fancy-scmanchy big words and convoluted intellectual discourse. He shared how Lincoln touched his listeners with this same skill:

His years of study and work as a lawyer, starting in 1837, also helped to make him a very capable writer and speaker. In court, he repeatedly used reason (for which he had enormous regard) and plain language (which anyone could understand). His spoken and written comments were never artificially literary but always direct and forceful.

Finding more inspiration
Hallwas’s final article, on why the study of Lincoln is still important, talks about the specific value of several new works or works of recent years. Not surprisingly, some of the authors and works who have captured my attention, inspired me and earned my devotion also got good marks in my mentor’s grade book.

I’m currently reading Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage. Hallwas wrote that Epstein’s book, “…showing how time and adversity can change people, would be a more fascinating read for most book clubs than Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fine book on Lincoln’s cabinet.”

Epstein drew me in and held me tight in the opening pages. I’ve had to set the book aside for a while due to the bicentennial events and other obligations, but you’ll hear why I agree when I’m done reading it. What Hallwas didn’t know when he wrote this is that Epstein is also an engaging speaker and quite personable. I got to hear him and meet him in Springfield. Epstein truly does seem to appreciate his readers as much as they appreciate his work.

As I began my studies of Lincoln, there were others who inspired me – through lectures, answers to my questions or taking time out of their busy schedules to visit with me. Hallwas, too, found value in the work of the following Lincoln scholars who have touched my life.

David Herbert Donald was one of the three-generation panel who gave me advice when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened in 2005. Douglas Wilson of Knox College, in my hometown of Galesburg, has been there for me whenever I’ve needed the answer to a Lincoln question. Though I didn’t get a chance to meet him, Eric Foner’s speech at the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration in Springfield provided a great springboard for my bicentennial week activities. And, when I wanted to learn more about his attraction to Lincoln, Richard Cawardine, the British Lincoln scholar, spent equal time asking me about my own Lincoln interests and providing encouragement.

The life and legacy of Lincoln are an inspiration – to scholars like these, to those who've followed in Lincoln's professions, to politicians like our new President, Barack Obama,and to youngsters of the last couple centuries. Yet, after Hallwas wrote of American’s fascination with Lincoln, he closed his series with the same question I’ve long had.

A more important question for us all, I think, is why some Americans can go through their lives unfascinated by Lincoln, unwilling to read about him, and thus uninfluenced by our most complex and astounding public figure.

Who inspires you?
If you’re reading this blog, you’ve likely been inspired in life by the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln. If you’re really lucky, you’ve also been inspired and mentored by someone like John Hallwas. In that case, you’ve been truly blessed.

My Hero essay/artwork contest deadline: March 1
Do you have a hero in your life who represents Abraham Lincoln’s heroic qualities? If so, don’t miss out on the chance to share the story and win a trip to the Land of Lincoln. The deadline for My hero essay contest is March 1, 2009. Not a writer? That doesn’t matter. You can also enter with a work of art. See the website for further details.

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