America's most prominent presidents faced great challenges in their day, from the Revolutionary and Civil wars to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence.
As history came to life for an audience of teens recently in Cold Spring Harbor, they subjected George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln to even more tests. Borrowing a page from modern times, students asked the men portraying the iconic figures their views on the economy, technological advances, gay marriage and whether society has improved.
"You have the greater advantage this day as we gaze out among all of you," said Thomas Jefferson, portrayed by Bill Barker, 60, of Williamsburg, Va. "You are able to pursue an education. In 1776, only the eldest sons and those families that had the means were allowed to pursue an education."
The other re-enactors at the program Thursday at Cold Spring Harbor Junior/Senior High School were Dean Malissa, 60, of Philadelphia, as Washington; James Foote, 64, of Sea Cliff, renowned for portraying Roosevelt; and Jim Getty, 81, of Gettysburg, Pa., as Lincoln.
The men first portrayed the presidents for Mount Rushmore Live 10 years ago, also at the school. They primarily work separately, but appear together about twice a year at venues nationwide. Malissa said their dynamic tells "the story about not just the formation but the preservation and the growth of the country."
Thursday, they played off each other's political differences. They also joked about the contrasts between themselves and the students.
"I'm a bit shocked by your state of dress," Washington, wearing coattails and breeches, told the mass of teenagers in hoodies and sneakers.
The re-enactors at times struck more somber tones in their lesson. Lincoln called on the students to contribute to their communities with the same conviction Americans had during the Civil War.
Roosevelt encouraged unity, "because Americanism is not a question of birthplace, creed or color, but rather a question of purpose, spirit and ideal."
Alek Sajewski, 16, of Lloyd Harbor, asked about a president's role in the economy. "I knew that Roosevelt had a rather stern approach, including to monopolies," he said, adding that he was interested to hear the other presidents' views in order to compare "current events and history."
Joseph Hubner, 13, of Cold Spring Harbor, said the experience enhanced what he was reading in textbooks. "You learned more of how they acted and carried themselves."
Washington discussed the nation's founding. "We had to decide what kind of sovereign nation we wanted to be," he said, noting that some thought he should be king. Instead, the founding fathers chose to build America on ideas, he said.
He suggested that, judging by the number of stars now on the flag and the subsequent presidents on the stage, "this experiment is succeeding."
The re-enactors of Mount Rushmore Live
George Washington: Dean Malissa, 60, of Philadelphia
Abraham Lincoln: Jim Getty, 81, of Gettysburg, Pa.