Our Own Abe

For 25 years, John Kapelka has interpreted the life of our nation’s 16th president. This month brings a special milestone — the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
It was blood poisoning that began the transformation.

Standing 6 feet 5 inches tall, John Kapelka already had the long, lean look of Honest Abe. There’s a certain similarity in his facial features. Plus, Kapelka always had an affinity for the nation’s 16th president. “He was an honest man and a God-fearing man,” he explains.

But it was the blood poisoning that really did it.

Kapelka, who runs a North Ridgeville automotive shop, spends his days getting his hands dirty. The way his facial hair grew often left him prone to itchy, ingrown hairs that he couldn’t help but scratch. The result of dirty fingernails was four separate cases of blood poisoning. “The doctor told me, ‘Let your hair grow and you won’t have a problem,’ ” Kapelka says.

Once his beard grew in, his resemblance to Abraham Lincoln was striking — so much so that JoAnn, one of Kapelka’s four daughters, bought him a tall, black top hat. “Daddy,” she told him, “you have to do this.”

It’s been 25 years since the 70-year-old began impersonating Lincoln at festivals, fairs and the like. But this Feb. 12 marks the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. Kapelka will appear at Lorain Public Library’s Lincoln bicentennial celebration Feb. 15.

As Kapelka’s knowledge of Lincoln has grown, so has his admiration. He tells how, in 1863, during the height of the

Civil War, Lincoln issued a proclamation for a day of prayer and fasting for the country. “It was a very hard time, and he knew that he couldn’t do it by himself,” he says.

Kapelka loves sharing history. Ask him about Lincoln and he slips in and out of character. He gets going talking about all of the missteps in Lincoln’s life — lost elections, business failings and debt. Who can’t relate to losing their way?

“After all those failures,” Kapelka says, morphing into Lincoln, “I was able to get to where I’m at today.”

His talks, of course, always include the greatest test of Lincoln’s life: “During the time of the war, it was very tough for me. The war was so bloody. I even went to the house of a lady who lost her four sons. It was just very hard for me to see that she gave her children.”

But nothing has touched Kapelka like the time a little boy ran up to him, embraced him and wouldn’t let go. After a moment, Kapelka found out why the boy’s hug lasted so long: His great-great-grandfather had been freed by Lincoln.

Lincoln Log

Honor Abe by checking out John Kapelka at the Lorain Public Library, or venture out for other events celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth:
Lincoln’s Birth
Bicentennial Celebration

Lorain Public Library
Experience firsthand why Kapelka is a member of the Lincoln Presenters, a nationwide organization of Lincoln look-alikes, and take part in additional activities for the whole family. Feb. 15, 2 - 4 p.m., free (preregistration is required), (440) 244-1192, Lorain Public Library, Main Library, 351 Sixth St., Lorain.
A Celebration of Abraham
Lincoln in Books

Rocky River Public Library
Library director John Lonsak is discussing a few of his favorite books about our 16th president, including Land of Lincoln and Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon. Feb. 12, 7 to 8 p.m., free (no registration required), (440) 333-7610, 1600 Hampton Road, Rocky River.
A Lincoln Portrait
The Akron Symphony
Conductor Christopher Wilkins presents “a musical portrait of the life and times of the man who shaped our modern nation, with photographic images, narrative and the poetry of Walt Whitman.” Leon Bibb is narrator for the event. Feb. 12, 7:30 p.m., $20-$40 or $15-$35 (seniors), (330) 535-8131, E.J. Thomas Hall, 198 Hill St., Akron.
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