Park worker's posts run gamut of Abe's life

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Stories from the Heartland

By John Friedlein

Scott Shultz’s current job seems cheerier than his last.

As chief of interpretation, visitors services and resource management at the site where Abraham Lincoln was born, he tells visitors about an event that calls for back slapping and passing out cigars.

As a guide at Ford’s Theatre, he talked about an event that calls for a handkerchief.

“I told the story of the assassination every day,” he said.

In contrast to the tear-jerking narrative at Ford’s Theater, the story in Hodgenville is downright pleasant. It’s about the beginning of an important life – how Abe went from frontier boy to one of America’s most popular presidents.

Shultz worked for seven years at the Washington, D.C., site, which was kept dark for more than a century.

“They thought nobody would want to see the place where Abraham Lincoln was killed,” he said.

But the renovated Ford’s Theater now draws about 1.5 million visitors a year.

The building’s tragic history doesn’t end with John Wilkes Booth shooting Lincoln in the back of the head during a play. After the assassination, temporary floors were installed to turn it into an office building. On June 9, 1893 – the same day as the Boston funeral of Booth’s brother, Edwin – three floors collapsed under the weight of the clerks’ desks, killing 22 federal employees.

The National Park Service reopened the building in 1968. Using historic photos as guides, the agency decorated the famous box as it was the night of the assassination.

“When you walked into the theater every morning, it was like walking back into the 19th century,” Shultz said. “It felt like you were there.”

Still, he said he didn’t feel close to Lincoln at the theater, where he worked for nearly eight years.

“I never really sensed his spirit there; I sensed tragedy.”

On the other hand, he said he immediately felt a connection when he arrived at the birthplace park, which is dominated by a pink granite memorial building atop a hill.
The rural setting is what he was looking for when the National Park Service  promoted him a year and a half ago. The 59-year-old said he was impressed by the area’s beauty and wants retire here.

He appreciates the hospitality, too. Shultz, who had cancer, said local residents were supportive through his illness.

Plus, there’s the commute. Instead of having to endure a crowded and expensive subway ride, he now can walk to work because he lives on the park grounds. Deer graze in his back yard.

The trees and fields there – and at the nearby boyhood home – also give visitors a sense of Lincoln’s early life and hardships.

Located off U.S. 31E near Hodgenville, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park draws nearly 300,000 visitors a year from around the world. Guests are attracted to Lincoln and what he did for the country, Shultz said.

“It’s an amazing story.” And a pleasant one, he gets to share daily.

John Friedlein’s Stories from the Heartland column appears each Monday in The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at jfriedlein@thenewsenterprise.com.